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Profiting Off Point Spreads

How to use bookmaker odds to correctly make fantasy decisions.

By Andrew Laird

Profiting Off Point Spreads

This article is part of our fantasy football help series.

Fantasy managers use a variety of bookmaker odds to make lineup decisions each week, whether for seasonal or daily play, but are we getting what we hope for out of these numbers?

The game with the highest expected total each week is usually one owners want exposure to, either from the favorite or the underdog, as more points in the game theoretically means more fantasy points for skill-position players.

Now, we can review the season's highest totals and see how the corresponding players performed, but each week of the football season, and, more important, the fantasy season, has its own nuances, whether with specific matchups, weather, injuries and so on, making it more illuminating to review week by week.

It is also important to review each week individually because some weeks, for example, have multiple games with totals over 50 points, while other weeks might not have any. Reviewing specific totals over the course of the season, like examining how every quarterback fared in games with totals of at least 51, doesn't necessarily help week to week because not every week is equal. There might be instances when 51 is the highest total by three or four points whereas another week it could be the fourth-highest, for example.

A long-held belief is that games with high over/unders produce a lot of fantasy points for the underdog quarterback and wide receivers because their team is forced to throw after it falls behind early. It's not a perfect strategy, as sometimes teams are so bad they can't overcome big deficits (the Jets, for example), but did we see that kind of production last season?

In Week 1 in 2016, 27 wide receivers scored at least 10.0 fantasy points (standard scoring). Six of those were on underdogs, only one of which ranked in the top 12 of WR scoring. Extending it to PPR formats, 27 scored at least 15.0 fantasy points, including eight from underdogs (two in the top 14). However, the highest-scoring receivers did not come from games with the highest totals. Of the 16 games in Week 1, eight had totals of 44 or less, and six of the top-11 wide receivers in standard scoring came from those games, all from favorites.

Looking at the top-scoring fantasy wide receiver each week of the season, only once did that player come from the game with the highest total: Golden Tate in Week 13 against the Saints. Clouding the decision for fantasy managers, the Lions were 6.5-point underdogs, and Drew Brees, the quarterback for the favored team in the game with the highest over/under, threw for 326 yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions (Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was the third-highest scoring QB that week). The next two highest-scoring wide receivers came from favorites, but their over/unders were 44.5 and 44.0, respectively, while the highest quarterbacks were in games with totals of 41.5 and 48.5, respectively.

Of course, it's easy to go back after the fact and see how Vegas lines held up versus the outcomes of games, but obviously we can't know the accuracy of Vegas lines before games are played. So, it's not an easy tool to use to predict the future. But, with the Brees and Stafford examples in mind, did game totals offer a clear path to the right fantasy decisions? Let's look at how each position fared and whether we can glean any predictive power from the data.

QUARTERBACK

For the purpose of this exercise, we'll focus on the 10 highest-scoring quarterbacks (four points per TD, one point per 20 passing yards) each week of the 2016 season and compare their results to the bookmakers' predictions based on the favorite, the spread and the over/under total.

There is natural instinct to expect quarterbacks from the game with the highest expected score to generate more fantasy points than quarterbacks in games with lower expected totals. We'll expand our search to games with the two highest expected totals, as that gives us four potential quarterbacks who could produce the most points.

Examining the top-10 quarterbacks each week shows that only once did the game with the highest over/under produce the quarterback with the most fantasy points – Drew Brees against the Panthers in Week 6. The Saints were three-point home underdogs with an expected total of 54 points, but they went on to beat the Panthers, 41-38, thanks to 465 yards and four touchdowns from Brees, whose 39.3 fantasy points were 6.7 more than the next highest quarterback. Cam Newton had a fine game himself, finishing with 30.2 fantasy points, sixth most among QBs that week.

And while Brees was the only quarterback to finish with the most fantasy points from the game with the highest expected total, five quarterbacks finished with the second-most fantasy points in a given week from the game with the highest total, while two others had the third-most points.

Staying in Week 6, we come to a disappointing result for the game with the second-highest total, which was the Steelers (-7.5) at the Dolphins with an over/under of 49.5. Neither quarterback finished in the top 10 in the 30-15 Miami victory, as Ben Roethlisberger and Ryan Tannehill combined for 26.4 fantasy points, a total lower than eight quarterbacks that week.

Nevertheless, games with the highest or second-highest over/unders produced at least one top-10 quarterback every week last season, including the highest total 15 times. In other words, if you only chose quarterbacks from the game with the highest total, you had an 88 percent chance (15 in 17 weeks) of picking the game that would produce at least one top-10 quarterback. Additionally, those games produced a top-five quarterback 19 times, spanning 12 unique weeks, which means you had a 71 percent chance (12 in 17 weeks) of picking the game that would produce a top-five quarterback.

Choosing the right game is only part of the equation, though, as there are obviously two quarterbacks from whom to choose. However, only three times did the underdog from the game with the highest total finish in the top 10 while the favored quarterback did not. Put differently, 71 percent of the quarterbacks from favored teams playing in games with the highest over/unders finished as top-10 players at the position.

The Brees-Newton situation from Week 6 detailed above was fairly common, as 32 times did quarterbacks playing in the same game both finish with top-10 fantasy point totals for that week, including seven times in the game with the highest over/under. The range of over/unders that produced two top-10 quarterbacks was large, as we had a low of 42 expected points in Week 12 when the Titans (-6.5) played the Bears. Matt Barkley finished with 27.8 fantasy points (sixth most that week) in that game, while Marcus Mariota ranked 10th with 23.9 fantasy points. It was one of nine games that had over/unders of 45 or less but included two top-10 fantasy quarterbacks, while there were 16 between 45.5 and 50, not including the highest totals of the week.

So, while the outcomes above show that you were better off going with the favored quarterback, there were a decent number of times when the underdog also produced a solid fantasy result. In fact, games with the highest totals might not regularly produce the top quarterback for the week, but they produced two top-10 quarterbacks 41 percent of the time (seven of 17 weeks). That said, many fantasy teams only require one quarterback, and given the details above, choosing the quarterback from the favored team in the game with the highest over/under provides an excellent chance of producing a top-10 player at the position.

So if that process is workable for quarterbacks, does it work for their wide receivers?

WIDE RECEIVER

Week 10 was the first time last season that a wide receiver playing in the game with the highest total finished with the most fantasy points. The Steelers were three-point favorites against the Cowboys, with an over/under of 51 points, and wideout Antonio Brown finished with a league-high 34.4 fantasy points (PPR scoring) while Roethlisberger was the second-highest scoring quarterback. Also in that game was Dez Bryant, whose 23.6 fantasy points were eighth most, though the Cowboys' Dak Prescott was not among the top-10 QBs. The only other instances of a wide receiver finishing with the most fantasy points and playing in the game with the highest total were Week 13 with Tate (Stafford finished third that week among quarterbacks) and Week 17 with Michael Thomas (Brees was eighth).

In the end, 14 receivers played in the game with the highest total and finished top 10 in PPR fantasy points for that week, while 15 other times a player from the game with the second-highest total finished in the top 10. However, that includes a few times when two receivers from the game with the highest over/under were top-10 players, so if we break it down by week, there were 11 of 17 weeks when at least one receiver from the game with the highest total finished in the top 10.

Because there are many more receivers than quarterbacks, there is more variance with the specific receivers who score more fantasy points than the rest of the league in a given week.

Take Green Bay, for example: a Packer finished as a top-10 wide receiver 12 times, but it was split between Jordy Nelson (seven), Davante Adams (four) and Randall Cobb (one). Cobb's one appearance came when Adams actually outscored him in Week 7, and in Week 14 both Nelson and Adams were top 10.

That said, there are plenty of top wideouts who were unsurprisingly worthy of more attention, such as Antonio Brown, who made the top-10 nine times (Sammie Coates was the only other Steelers wideout to make it and Brown also made the list that week) and Julio Jones, who was responsible for seven of the nine appearances of a Falcons wideout in the top 10.

Putting this into perspective versus quarterbacks, whereas the game with the highest over/under produced a top-10 quarterback 88 percent of the time, the rate was only 59 percent for wide receivers, and there were many more receivers from whom to choose. If that's not bad enough, Week 3 had just one receiver in the top 10 play in either the highest or second-highest total game, the same number as Weeks 6 and 12, with two coming from favorites.

Because it is harder to land on a specific wide receiver from the game with the highest over/under, it could make sense to at least pair him with the quarterback from the favored team, since we know there's a more than 70 percent chance the quarteback will finish in the top 10.

So, how many times did a team produce a top-10 quarterback and a top-10 wide receiver in the same week? Ninety – at least three times every week. Additionally, of those 90 instances, 10 came from the game with the highest over/under, which spanned eight unique weeks. In other words, a quarterback and a wide receiver from the same team in the game with the highest over/under both finished as top-10 players at their positions 47 percent of the time.

It shouldn't be surprising that that number is lower than it is for quarterbacks and wide receivers individually, but a near 50 percent rate of games with the highest over/under producing a QB and WR who both scored in the top 10 in fantasy points in that week should not be ignored.

RUNNING BACK

Moving to the backfield, a running back playing in the highest-total game finished in the top 10 in fantasy points (PPR) for that week 21 times, including five times finishing with the most points and three others with the second most. They were not as reliable as quarterbacks on a week-to-week basis, but they did outperform wide receivers in terms of consistency, as there were only four of 17 weeks when a running back playing in the game with the highest over/under did not make the top 10.

Digging deeper into those 21 instances, there were actually a number of teammates who accomplished the feat in the same game. The Lions' Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah both finished as top-10 running backs in Week 1 in the game with the highest total, something the Falcons' Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman did in Week 3, the Saints' John Kuhn and Mark Ingram did in Week 4 and Ingram and Tim Hightower did in Week 9.

Additionally, there were instances of opposing running backs reaching the top 10 and playing in the game with the highest over/under, as we saw with Melvin Gordon and Kuhn/Ingram in Week 4, DuJuan Harris and Ingram/Hightower in Week 9, Ezekiel Elliott and Le'Veon Bell in Week 10 and Freeman and Ingram in Week 17. Given the way most offenses work, one would expect a high-passing team to produce multiple top-10 wide receivers in some weeks, but in fact, there were more instances of multiple running backs producing in games with the highest over/unders.

Stacking a quarterback and a running back isn't nearly as popular as a quarterback and a wide receiver (or tight end), but there were 59 times last season when a team produced a top-10 QB and top-10 RB.

It's not quite as regular as the quarterback/wide receiver combo overall, but the QB/RB combination played in the game with the highest expected total 11 times, one more than the QB/WR list.

With running backs catching many more passes than in years past, it's not completely surprising that we've seen quarterbacks and running backs produce in the same game (think Roethlisberger and Bell). Given the outcomes, there appears to be plenty of reason to consider stacking a quarterback and a running back from the game with the highest total instead of just a quarterback and a wide receiver.

TIGHT END

Because teams use tight ends in such different situations and circumstance, they are not always the most consistent fantasy producers. Most tight ends are dependent on scoring touchdowns to reach certain fantasy-point thresholds, so it is unsurprising that their consistency in this exercise isn't as strong as the other positions.

There were 20 instances of tight ends from the highest over/under games scoring in the top 10, spanning 11 unique weeks, which means 65 percent of the time the strategy of taking a tight end from that game produced a usable fantasy player. Even better, not once was that player from the Patriots (Rob Gronkowski or Martellus Bennett), while Jordan Reed made the list once and Greg Olsen twice.

In other words, using the tight end from the game with the highest total is potentially more helpful because it puts the spotlight on players who many wouldn't consider because they aren't as consistently productive as Gronkowski or Olsen. Players like Hunter Henry, Jack Doyle, Vance McDonald and Ed Dickson are examples of less popular tight ends who played in games with the highest over/unders and produced a top-10 score.

KICKER

A kicker in the highest-total game ranked in the top 10 in fantasy points for that week 18 times, while another 17 played in the game with the second-highest total. Moving to a weekly view, there were only two weeks when a kicker from the game with the highest over/under did not finish as a top-10 player at the position, which means there were two games when the highest total produced two top-10 kickers.

Interestingly, there was a 50-50 split between favorites and underdogs among those 18 initial instances, while the split among the 17 games with the second-highest total was nine to eight.

Choosing a kicker from the game with the highest total will give you a good chance of landing a top-10 kicker, and it seems to not matter one way or the other whether you choose the favorite.

DO FAVORITES OR POINT SPREADS MATTER?

Using over/unders to help narrow the player pool for fantasy teams is one step, but who is favored should matter, as well. If a game has an over/under of 50 points but one team is favored by 15 points, the underdog isn't expected to produce many fantasy points. So, did the positional top-10 lists show a tilt toward favorites? Not really.

For each positional breakdown, there were 96 favorites among the 170 players listed, representing just more than 56 percent, an advantage but hardly a great one.

We can also look at big point spreads and see if favorites dominated or if underdogs produced fantasy points while trying to come back from early deficits, but it's important to recognize that there aren't double-digit favorites each week, so our pool of games to consider is obviously much smaller.

Still, within the 170 quarterbacks examined, 36 played in games with a spread of at least seven points and only 11 (30.5 percent) were underdogs, including two in the game with the highest or second-highest total.

For the other positions, 35 wide receivers who played in games with a spread of at least a touchdown finished in the top 10 in fantasy points, with nine coming from underdogs, including two with the highest or second-highest over/under. Finally, 38 running backs in the top 10 played in games with spreads of at least seven points, with 11 coming from underdogs, including three who played in the game with the highest or second-highest expected total.

If we want to move it to double-digit point spreads, we have 10 quarterbacks, seven from favorites; 10 wide receivers, nine from favorites; and eight running backs, six from favorites. Given the low number of underdogs in the top 10 at their respective positions from high-spread games, it's clear that the accepted wisdom that more passing from the underdog to get back into games will produce more fantasy points has little evidence backing it up.

PLAYER PROPS

Individual player props can also be used to help estimate fantasy production, though it's important to use them in relation to other players. For example, it's one thing for Mike Evans to have a yardage over/under of 79.5 points, but it's another to recognize that six other players that week have higher totals. Yardage figures can vary significantly week to week, even for elite players (just check out Julio Jones' game log from last season), so while the raw over/unders can look enticing, like so many other aspects of football, it's important to use them in relation to other players and not simply on their own. The value of 80 yards is much different if only one player has more as opposed to 20.

Bookmaker odds, whether game spreads, team totals or individual player props, can be key components of weekly fantasy football research, but it's important to recognize that they are only one tool in the toolbox and shouldn't be too heavily relied upon for predictive purposes on their own. Additionally, analyzing individual game odds by themselves doesn't provide much context for the week, so always ensure they are used comparatively to help understand how the upcoming games might play out.