This five-part series concludes with notable defensive trends as well as some overall lineup construction trends. While it may not feel or look like it, defense still has a vital role in the league; look no further than Super Bowl 53 when Brian Flores completely shut down Sean McVay’s octane offense. Defense does win games even in a league that is predicated on offense nowadays as this first trend illustrates.
NO DEFENSE IN THE PERFECT LINEUP LOST ITS GAME
The first two weeks hilariously contained defenses in the perfect lineup that played to ties. However, coming as no surprise from Week 3 on, the perfect defense won their game straight up. By predicting who will win games, it can eliminate half of the available pool of defenses to select from. It’s very rare that the top defense in a week lost its game to the point that it hasn’t happened in fantasy football since Week 4 of 2015 when Detroit amassed 24 fantasy points in a loss to Seattle.
11 OF THE 17 DEFENSES WERE FAVORITES
Like the fans, Vegas is still learning about the 32 teams early on that for as bad as the Bills were offensively in the first half of 2018, they possessed a competent defense that everyone in suicide pools and DFS discovered as 17-point underdogs in Week 3. Go back to Week 1 in 2017 and Jacksonville made the perfect lineup as six-point underdogs against an awful Tom Savage that ultimately gave DeShaun Watson the starting job.
Once the first few weeks play out, Vegas has a better pulse on the teams and it shows as no defense heading into their respective perfect game was worse than 3.5-point underdogs. This trend is an extension of the one listed above and further reduces the pool of suitable options. It would take balls to start a double-digit underdog as a fantasy defense, the type of balls that less than a percent of people in the Milly Maker had who started the Bills as 17-point dogs.
15 OF THE 17 DEFENSES WERE PRICED NO MORE THAN $3000
Two viable defensive strategies proved effective in 2018. Rostering the Bears defense each week would have given you nine double-digit fantasy point performances, the most in the NFL. The other option was rostering the defense against a Cardinals offense that allowed a league-high 10 double-digit fantasy point performances. Implementing these strategies would be costly as most weeks, the Bears or whoever the Cardinals dueled with were the priciest defenses on the board.
Luckily the best defense on the main slate was over $3000 just twice, demonstrating that paying down at that position can be just as effective as paying up for what are considered to be the top defensive options heading into the week. Chiacgo and Miami were the top two defenses on the Week 9 main slate with a difference of $1300 in salary and three fantasy points. That extra salary could find better use in helping to pay up for some top-tiered talent at other positions. Especially when the top-priced defense was never the perfect defense at any point in 2018.
13 OF THE 17 DEFENSES HELD THEIR OPPONENT UNDER THEIR TEAM TOTAL
In its simplest form, the primary goal of a defense is to keep another team off a scoreboard. Targeting games with low game totals is one way to go about this process. Like running back, there is a stronger correlation in utilizing the team totals by rostering defenses against opposing offenses not expected to generate much offense. The Cardinals were dead last in a variety of offensive categories and metrics last season that it made them a weekly piñata as they only exceeded their team total three times.
Of course just keeping opponents off the scoreboard won’t be enough to earn a spot in the perfect lineup. Pitching a shutout nets 10 fantasy points but every defense needed an additional boost to get on the exclusive list.
15 OF THE 17 DEFENSES FORCED MULTIPLE TURNOVERS
Ultimately, the goal of selecting a fantasy defense is identifying the one that has the best chance to hold an opposing offense to as little points as possible while scoring a defensive touchdown. Forecasting which one will register a pick 6 or special teams touchdown can be as much of a science as meteorologists trying to predict the weather. Even with the increase in technology and tools, you’d think that they be able to give an accurate report on a daily basis. Selecting a defense can feel the same way as there have never been more databases and tools for fantasy players to access. Yet, there are so many variables in 60 minutes of football that determine success and failure for fantasy defenses.
Let’s not forget the low frequency of defensive/special teams touchdown that occur year after year. There were 83 occurrences in 2018, an average of 5.18 per week. Let alone trying to predict who’s going to return a kickoff or punt to the house will be enough to drive one bonkers and is simply not a viable option.
The best course of action in finding a defense that can score a touchdown is selecting ones that best create opportunities to allow that to happen. 12 of the 17 perfect defenses sacked the quarterback at minimum three times, all opportunities that force precious turnovers that increase the opportunity for a defensive score. In the 15 games in which a defense forced multiple turnovers, nine of them did so in games they scored a defensive touchdown.
Playing on the road, inclement weather, backup quarterbacks, porous offensive lines, and increased wind speeds are just some of the variables that can influence turnovers. If cognizant of these factors, it can help place you in the best spot to roster the best defense in what can be tough position to project.
OTHER NOTABLE TRENDS
15 OF THE 17 PERFECT LINEUPS FEATURED GAME STACKS
Each main slate featured at least one team stack and that was nearly identical for game stacks as only two of them didn’t feature one. Of the 21 game stacks that occurred, the most common was an RB+WR which occurred four times followed by an RB+TE and WR+WR stack happening twice. A variety of other game stacks from WR-WR+WR to QB-RB+WR found their way into the perfect lineup as well as unusual combinations from WR+DEF to RB+DEF.
Stacking as many players from both teams in matchups with low spreads and high game totals is a commonly applied strategy. Regular season matchups like the Saints-Rams, Chiefs-Rams, and Chiefs-Patriots come to mind though the former two unfortunately weren’t on the main slate. Like Al Zeidenfeld cleverly professes in these situations, “Play all the dudes.”
Ryan Fitzpatrick and DeSean Jackson formed a stack along with an opposing, underpriced stack of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara at a Mercedes-Benz Superdome known for some shootouts in Week 1. The following week saw another shootout where Jesse James and JuJu Smith-Schuster slaughtered a Chiefs defense that hardly played any in 2018 against a Steelers defense that had no answer for the duo of Mahomes and Kelce.
More often than not, you will have the two or three-player game stacks that frequent the perfect lineup. The RB+WR variety makes sense in that a running back slaughters a team on his own while the opposing offense utilizes a wide receiver in an effort to play-catch-up; Ezekiel Elliott and Golden Tate in Week 4 are the perfect illustration of this theory. When the stars align and both offenses are clicking, nothing beats having pieces of both teams in a lineup and watching the DK points accumulate.
THERE WERE ONLY SIX INSTANCES OF BACK-TO-BACK ENTRIES IN THE PERFECT LINEUP
Recency bias plays a factor each and every week in any cash game or tournament. The competition gets gitty when an Amari Cooper or a Tarik Cohen goes off the week before and then is highly disappointed when these players fail to meet the expectations bestowed upon them from the prior week’s performance.
Observing from a macro level, taking all of the fantasy positions in 2018 other than the kicker, there were 28 occurrences in which a top-3 performance was duplicated the following week. This doesn’t include perfect lineup figures but encompasses all of fantasy football players in full-point PPR leagues last season. Of those 28, just three of them stretched multiple weeks with Todd Gurley posting top-3 performances at his position four weeks in a row along with Drew Brees and Zach Ertz doing so in three-week stretches.
In terms of frequency, the running back position saw the most with 12 posting top-3 performances in consecutive weeks while the wide receiver had just two in Michael Thomas and Tyreek Hill. With bell cow backs making up a majority of the 12, this reinforces two ideas that were discussed earlier regarding paying up for the top-tiered running backs and paying down at the wide receiver position with the inconsistency at the top of the fantasy point leaderboard for receivers each week.
There are some variables that impact the low number of back-to-back top-3 performances in the DraftKings perfect lineup. First, playing on Thursday, Sunday, or Monday night removes those respective players from eligibility on that week’s main slate. That number of six back-to-back top-3 performances could certainly be higher if the main slate wasn’t limited to just the Sunday afternoon block of games. Second, salary increases to those who excel the prior week make it more difficult to insert them the following week and still put together the best possible lineup. Of those six repeat perfect lineup occurrences, running backs represented four of them (Barkley, Gurley, McCaffery, Mixon) while the wide receiver (Thielen) and tight end (Kelce) made up one each.
This teaches us the importance of when the masses zig in one direction, zag in another one. Naturally it’s easier to go with what’s comfortable and select the player that had an incredible performance the prior week vs the contrary that didn’t post double-digit fantasy points. If the same players kept repeating their dominant performances, fantasy football would be so easy and predictable that fantasy football analysts wouldn’t be needed and everyone would be printing money in DFS. Another way to understand recency bias is why pay an additional $600-$1000 in salary for a player that excelled the prior week that more likely than not will come back to earth or fall way short of projections?
THE AVERAGE COST OF THE FLEX POSITION WAS $4135
8 of the 17 perfect flex spots went to running backs who averaged 22.5 touches at an average cost of $4587. $203.86 per touch isn’t too shabby for trying to squeeze in a player with the last remaining salary available. Tarik Cohen made it twice as a flex option while those that were in the fantasy playoffs in redraft leagues may recall Derrick Henry’s two games of dominance, one which landed him as a perfect flex off 34 touches and a steal of a $5000 salary in Week 15.
Double tight ends had its spots as five occurrences featured two tight ends making the cut. Being that it was the most recent main slate, no one would have expected Blake Jarwin’s three touchdown performance in Week 17. He paired with George Kittle as Kyle Shanahan did whatever it took to feed Kittle towards a record.
Four wide receivers were perfect flex options with two of them pairing with an opposing receiver to form game stacks. DeSean Jackson and Michael Thomas both went off in a Bayou shootout that saw the Bucs shock the Saints to open the season. Kenny Golladay has his way with the Panthers secondary while D.J. Moore did his best to duplicate that performance in Week 11
Back around 2015 when both FanDuel and DraftKings invested heavily in television advertising, DK’s commercial would ask who your million dollar player would be. That commercial referred to the flex position and that low-rostered player that would be the difference maker. It came in the form of Jesse James, Calvin Ridley, Maurice Harris, and Blake Jarwin at various points of last season. That commercial still holds credence to this day as 13 of the 17 main slates had one player, not including the quarterback or defense, that was priced under $4000.
While this series was intended to serve as an aid in roster construction, don’t treat it as gospel as these trends as well as offensive and defensive philosophies are subject to change each season. The NFL is very much a copycat league as those who were looking for a head coach this offseason were trying to find the next Sean McVay. By the end of the 2019 season, teams with coaching vacancies could be looking for the next Frank Reich or Brian Flores or whoever is the hot name enjoying success and implement their philosophies.
What we know heading into 2019 is that the NFL has become a passing league with quarterbacks and wide receivers posting record numbers in 2018. While rushing attempts decreased, running backs experienced great success with their utilization out of the backfield which in effect has taken a toll on the tight end position as illustrated in part four of the series.
We can take this knowledge and gear our first few lineups of 2019 towards these trends. After the first few weeks play out, we can reassess those trends and adjust our lineup construction philosophies if need be. Staying flexible is an important attribute to have as some of the trends I described may change when I compose this writing following the 2019 season. As long as we remain keen to what is transpiring on the field, we can remain prepared to generate the best possible lineups in an effort to build the perfect one.