DFS Strategy: How to Attack the WR Position (Fantasy Football)
Throughout this DFS strategy series, I’ve hit on how to attack the QB position and how to attack the RB position in DFS. Next up, wide receivers. With overall pass volume continually trending upward in the NFL, there are more relevant wide receivers than ever before. In addition, more NFL offenses are shifting towards 11 personnel, or 3WR sets. For perspective, 25 of 32 teams ran 3WR sets 50+% of the time in 2020, indicating this is the new ‘normal’ base set for most offenses.
If the vast majority of offenses feature 3+WR sets more often than not, there are more WRs on the field running routes with the potential to earn targets. Therefore, in a specific week for DFS purposes, it’s tough to predict which WRs are going to produce. Yet, on DraftKings and FanDuel, you have to start at least three of them. Clearly, hitting on our WRs is vital in DFS, so how should we attack the position?
Focus on Volume Rather Than Efficiency in Cash Games
In cash game formats, the goal is to be better than half the field. As a result, we should care a lot about the floor of our pass catchers. It’s not that we shouldn’t be looking for ceiling, but trying to identify wide receivers who are going to see targets is crucial, especially in full PPR scoring on DraftKings. Simply put, if our wide receivers are being targeted a.k.a. given the opportunity to catch the football, they have a repeatable chance to put up fantasy points.
Of course, banking on targets over the course of an entire NFL season can be difficult, especially with ever-changing depth charts, playing time, QB play, coaching tendencies, etc. etc…you get the idea. Fortunately for us, we’re only playing one week at a time, and the good news there is that targets over a small sample demonstrate a positive correlation with fantasy points.
In Chris Raybon’s study from a couple of years ago, he found that if looking at the recent sample size of four games or less, there is an average correlation coefficient of 0.172 to DraftKings points in that player’s next game. Furthermore, if we use exactly four games, the correlation coefficient jumps to .207.
Bottom Line: Targets are more predictable over a short sample size, and we should use recent trends to identify weekly projectable volume for our cash game lineups.
Embrace the Volatility of the WR Position in GPPs
If we want to target WRs who are guaranteed to see targets in cash games, we should at least be open to the idea that the “best” tournament play may be a wide receiver who catches us by surprise. Why? When compared to the running back position, week-to-week performance for wide receivers is much more unpredictable, and if we embrace that there is inherent projection error at the position, we can have a leg up on our competition in tournaments.
Take Tyler Lockett for example. If you played redraft last season and you rostered Lockett, you knew first hand how much upside he had early in the season…and how much he let you down late in the year. Was the consistency frustrating? Of course, but in DFS, that up and down nature of wide receivers is normal. We want to embrace this variance, because wide receivers truly have week-winning upside, and in a GPP, that’s all that matters.
To put it in more simple terms, we are bad at identifying spiked weeks from the wide receiver position. To highlight this point, let’s take a look at the correlation between DraftKings salary and fantasy points. In 2020, RBs had a correlation of .479 while WRs had a correlation of .462. In other words, cheaper wide receivers are more likely to have a spiked week relative to cheap running backs. Knowing this, we should be willing to expand our player pool at the WR position in tournaments.
Bottom Line: Wide receivers, in general, are more difficult to project due to the inherent up and down nature of fantasy scoring at the position. We should embrace the projection error associated with WRs and be willing to try to identify lower rostered players who have similar upside to those who will be more popular in a given week.
Win the Flex with the WR Position
I will start by saying that at times, it’s going to make sense to play an RB in the flex spot. Take, for instance, a week where we get a backup RB with a path to 20+ touches at the minimum salary on DraftKings or FanDuel. From a point per dollar perspective, we may get more projectable volume from a 3RB build. However, more often than not we want to be using a wide receiver in the flex for three main reasons.
Reason 1: The top 1% outcome for a wide receiver is much higher than it is for a running back in full PPR scoring.
Reason 2: It’s easier to find leverage plays at the WR position who have a realistic path to a ceiling performance than it is at the RB position.
Reason 3: Playing a WR in the flex allows more avenues to either double stack with our QB or “bring it back” with a WR from the opposing team in a game stack. Note: For a more detailed conversation on stacking be sure to listen to this episode of The Fantasy Footballers DFS Podcast.
When looking at trends from the Milly Maker Tournament on DraftKings, we can also get a leg up on our competition by playing a WR in the flex position. The field used WR in the flex about 40% of the time. Meanwhile, lineups that finished in the top 10% used a WR in the flex about 45% of the time, and lineups that finished in the top 1% used a WR almost 55% of the time.
Similarly, the field is overvaluing RB in the flex. Our opponents are playing an RB in the flex just under 50% of the time despite the fact that only about 42% of lineups that finish in the top 1% used an RB in the flex.
Bottom Line: Wide receivers have access to the massive ceiling we’re looking for in GPPs and our opponents aren’t playing a WR in the flex often enough. Playing a WR in the flex also gives us access to game stacking environments that we know are crucial to success in GPPs.
When Building a Game Stack, Bring it Back with a Wide Receiver
“Bring it back” means using at least one player from the opponent of our quarterback stack. For example, if the Chargers are playing the Broncos our stack could be Justin Herbert, Keenan Allen, and Mike Williams. Our ideal bring back would be one of Jerry Jeudy or Courtland Sutton. The idea here is to maximize correlation. If Herbert goes off and has a monster game, chances are his teammates went off and someone on the other team was forcing him to have to reach his ceiling.
When a QB posts a 25-point game, there’s a 61% chance the opposing QB will too. As a result, if we’re building a QB-WR stack on one side of the ball, we should absolutely be trying to maximize correlation by also getting exposure to at least one player on the opposing team.
Which of these positions do you think has a stronger correlation in terms of stacking with a QB for #DFS ? 🤔
— Kyle Borgognoni (@kyle_borg) August 12, 2021
Take a look at Kyle’s Twitter poll from above. Most assume that stacking with a team’s opposing WR is most optimal. Ironically, according to FantasyLabs data, the opposing WR1 in a game stack carries a 0.37 correlation while the opposing WR2 carries a 0.41 correlation. There’s not a huge edge in this correlation score, as both are positively correlated, but the real edge here is that the WR2 has just as good of a chance as a blow-up performance as the opposing WR1, yet most of our opponents are playing the WR1.
So we know there can be an edge in playing the WR2 rather than the WR1, but how about in playing a WR in the flex in general? Ohhhh yes. In the Milly Maker last year, the field brought it back with a WR about 25% of the time. Meanwhile, teams that finished inside the top 100 brought it back with a WR just under 50% of the time.
Bottom Line: When building game stacks for a tournament, we should be bringing it back with an opponent from the opposing team. There is a small edge in bringing it back with an opposing team’s WR2, but the data shows that there’s a massive edge in bringing it back with any WR, as the field does not do this enough relative to top-performing teams.
Fade Matchups, especially for Elite WRs
One of the hot topics in NFL DFS research when it comes to the WR position is trying to look at WR/CB matchups. In a vacuum, we’d much rather have our pass catchers going up against a backup undrafted free agent corner than Jalen Ramsey. However, it’s usually not that simple. Don’t get me wrong – there are definitely going to be weeks this season where we’re trying to pick on a corner or a defense, but we should be willing to take a step back and simply trust good offenses even if the matchup is difficult.
I can’t recommend Matt DiSorbo’s article Making the Most of Matchups highly enough. In his article, Matt states, “When predicting how an offense will do, it’s more important to know how that offense is performing, not how the defense it is facing has performed against other offenses.”
The heat map above shows that regardless of matchup, wide receivers on better offenses perform better regardless of matchup. Even more surprising, the top-5 wide receivers performed the best against some of the “best defenses” against wide receivers. The take-home point here is that elite wide receivers on elite offenses are matchup agnostic. This data suggests we shouldn’t be fading elite guys like Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, or Tyreek Hill based on matchups.
One hypothesis for what the data is showing us is that the top-tier wide-outs are used in a variety of ways. Elite wide receivers are the focal point of their offense, and because of that, coordinators are becoming more creative, moving their wide receivers across the formation in motion and/or into the slot to create mismatches.
Take a look at this WR comparison from 2020 for example. Jarvis Landry would largely be considered a slot WR by most fantasy players. After all, he did line up there 24.5 times per game last season. Most would also consider Allen Robinson a perimeter WR, which is largely true. After all, he did only play about 14 snaps in the slot per game last year. However, the difference here and the take-home point is that when elite WRs are moved into the slot, their usage increases. A Rob caught three more TD from the slot and saw more targets there despite lining up in the slot 10 fewer times per game.
Bottom Line: Wide receiver matchups are largely overrated, especially for elite WRs. We should remain confident that top-tier wide receivers on good offenses will continue to produce regardless of matchup.
Use Vegas Lines to Identify The Right Game Environment
We’ve already established that targets are an important statistic to track over a small sample size, and there’s data to support that recent trends in target volume can be helpful in predicting fantasy performance. While that strategy remains viable in tournaments, we should also be looking at more advanced data and utilize Vegas lines to try to identify the blow-up performances we’re looking for in tournaments.
When trying to target game stacking environments for tournaments, we should be looking for games where we can see a scenario that exists where both teams roll and it’s a fantasy-friendly shootout type of environment. Fortunately, the Vegas Report article in the DFS Pass is designed specifically to help us identify the games we should be targeting each week. Here are some of the things I look at when writing that article:
- Spreads – Who Vegas has pegged as the favorite and the underdog, and by how much
- Over/Unders – How many total points Vegas expects to be scored in each contest
- Implied Team Totals – How many points Vegas expects a specific team to score
Here’s where the nuance comes in. We can’t just blindly look at each Vegas total and automatically assume those are the best games to target because if it were that easy, we could just blindly log into DraftKings Sportsbook, find the three or four games that have a 50+ point total, and blindly make lineups around those games. If it were that easy, we’d all be printing money playing DFS.
On the DraftKings Overview podcast, Kyle and I talked through where we think the biggest edge is in terms of using Vegas totals.
Kyle went back and looked at every game from the 2020 season. As you can see in the table above, games that had a 50+ Vegas total his the under 60.6% of the time while hitting the over just 34.8% of the time. Meanwhile, games that featured a total between 47 and 49.5 points hit the over 57.6% of the time.
The take-home here is that there may be an edge in targeting wide receivers in game stacks in games that feature a 47-49.5 point total while our opponents will flock to the games that have a 50+ point total. Based on this data, it appears as though games that feature a 50+ point total underwhelm relative to expectation. If we can identify games in this category that have a path to hit the under, we may be able to find popular players worthy of fading in a given week.
Regardless of the Vegas total, it does appear that we should be targeting WRs favored teams, especially in games that feature a 47+ point total. When the total was 47-49.5, favored teams covered 53% of the time. Similarly, in games that had a 50+ point total, the favored team covered 57.6% of the time. And, since the year 2000, the favored team won the game 66% of the time.
The take-home here is that we should be using Vegas implied totals as a way to guide our selections in DFS. The data shows that when there’s a healthy total, the favored team covers the spread more often than not a.k.a. they are providing a better game environment to facilitate fantasy points.
Finally, games that feature a low total of fewer than 46.5 points should be faded altogether. The favored team only covers 39.4% of the time and the under hits more often than not. This is not the game environment we’re looking for when looking for upside at the WR position.
I’m not ready to definitively say this is a tried and true method just yet, as this data is from 2020 only. We likely need a bigger sample size to be able to confidently use this strategy, but it at least appears there’s a small edge in this approach.
Bottom Line: We want to be targeting games that feature a 47+ point total and should consider game stacking games that feature a total between 47-49.5 points as leverage against players who are likely to be more popular in game stacks that feature a 50+ point total. In addition, it makes sense to target wide receivers on favored teams in games that feature high totals as we see favored teams cover the spread more often than not.
Note: For more on how fantasy points correlate with favored teams, be sure to read more about projecting game scripts and how it relates to fantasy performance.
- Target wide receivers who have projected volume (targets) in cash games
- Wide receiver is the most volatile position on a week-to-week basis. We should embrace that volatility in tournaments.
- Win the flex by playing a WR, which has access to a higher ceiling compared to an RB.
- In game stacks for tournaments, “bring it back” with a player on the opposing team. Bringing it back with a WR shows a slight edge relative to other positions.
- Fade difficult matchups for wide receivers, especially elite WRs
- Use Vegas totals and spreads to identify the right game environments where our pass-catchers can reach a top 1% outcome. There may be an edge in targeting games that feature a 47-49.5 total, as these games are less likely to be popular, and the data shows these games hit the over more often than games that feature a 50+ point total.