This article is part of our DFS Tournament Guide series.
The first game of the 2019 NFL season looked much like the final game of the previous campaign, only this time it felt like a matter of bad coaching and lousy quarterback play rather than great coaching and stellar defense. The silver lining? It was a good night for anyone that faded all players from the season opener in Thursday-Monday DFS contests.
Now we can focus on Sunday's main slate, comprised of the 12 games taking place Sunday afternoon. For anyone interested in a refresher, we have some great resources here at RotoWire to help prepare for the season ahead:
- My article on DFS tournament strategy from the 2019 NFL Draft Kit
- This great series of podcasts from Andrew Laird and Scott Jenstad
- DFS 101: How to Play on DraftKings
- DFS 101: How to Play on FanDuel
- The weekly value report with projections from RotoWire and PFF
Note: All prices listed come from DraftKings, but most of the strategy can be applied to other sites across the industry.
These are the players with the best projections relative to price — a.k.a the guys that are great plays for both cash games and large-field tournaments. While we don't want our tourney lineups to look like cash-game lineups top to bottom, there's nothing wrong with using a couple "chalk" picks that have strong odds to outperform their salaries. These players, along with a passing-game stack, tend to form the core that remains consistent throughout my various tourney lineups.
RB Dalvin Cook, MIN vs. ATL ($6,000)
There's been some chatter about Alexander Mattison poaching short-yardage and goal-line carries, but Cook otherwise appears headed for the three-down usage we saw a glimpse of back in December. He averaged 47.4 snaps, 13.6 carries and 5.4 targets over the final five games last year, producing 520 scrimmage yards, three touchdowns and 18.2 PPR points per game. Cook achieved those numbers despite losing some clock-killing work to Latavius Murray, who now resides in New Orleans. This matchup is particularly tasty in full-PPR formats, where we can take full advantage of a Falcons defense that ranked dead last in catches allowed to running backs each of the past four seasons (how does that even happen?).
TE Hunter Henry, LAC vs. IND ($3,900)
If you ranked Henry fourth or fifth among tight ends for season-long leagues, I probably don't need to convince you he's a steal for Week 1, particularly at the price on DraftKings. His career average of 8.9 DK points per game doesn't seem too promising, until we remember that he spent his previous seasons in a timeshare with Antonio Gates, averaging 40.4 snaps, 19.1 routes and 4.0 targets per game. I mention "routes" as a reminder that Henry had the lousy part of that timeshare, forced to run-block on nearly half his snaps. Preseason usage all but confirmed what should be obvious: Henry staying on the field for passing downs.
His first chance in the new role comes against an Indianapolis defense that allowed a league-high 1,194 receiving yards to tight ends last season, despite facing a schedule with no Travis Kelce or George Kittle. Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted DVOA metric ranked the Colts 29th at defending TEs and 25th at defending passes to RBs. It makes sense given the 2018 breakouts for cornerbacks Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore, not to mention the presence of defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who previously worked under Rod Marinelli in Dallas. For the uninitiated, Marinelli's scheme is known for a conservative, zone-heavy approach that limits big plays and funnels targets closer to the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys tend to rank near the bottom of the league in catches allowed to RBs and TEs.
Honorable Mention: RB Leonard Fournette, JAX vs. KC ($6,100)
Stacks are the centerpiece of any tournament lineup, seeking to take advantage of positive correlations between players. It rarely makes sense to use a quarterback without one or two of his pass catchers, even if the signal caller in question scores a decent portion of his points with his legs. Ideally, a stack also includes a pass catcher from the other side of the contest, hoping to take advantage of a tight game where both teams are still throwing the ball deep into the fourth quarter.
Rams (-1.5) at Panthers, O/U 50.0
This game has three things I always like: a small spread, a high total and at least one team that likes to play uptempo. The Rams ranked second in first-half seconds per snap (26.2) last season, after finishing first (25.4) the year before. Much like his Super Bowl opponent, Sean McVay likes to come out of the gate aggressive, only scaling back if/when his team jumps out to a lead. If that lead doesn't materialize, we can expect a bunch of throws downfield and minimal time wasted between snaps — the ideal scenario for a DFS stack.
Picking specific players from the contest is a bit more difficult, with only Curtis Samuel ($4,200) standing out as a bargain at first glance. There's also a good enough argument for Christian McCaffrey ($8,800), though I don't often include a running back in my game stack. McCaffrey, of course, is a little bit different, considering he scored 59 percent of his PPR points on catches last year. The star running back would be my choice, if not for the wealth of great options at his position this week. Given what I want to do with the rest of my lineup, Samuel or D.J. Moore ($5,500) are better fits — especially if I'm using Cam Newton ($6,500) instead of Goff at quarterback (a perfectly reasonable strategy).
The Los Angeles side is less complicated, with the decision really coming down to Brandin Cooks ($6,500) or Robert Woods ($6,400), given that I'm not willing to pay $5,700 for a player — Cooper Kupp — who had ACL surgery just 10 months ago. Kupp will be fine in the long run, but history shows that he's unlikely to be the best version of himself until late in the season or even next year. I have a slight preference for Cooks over Woods in tournaments, with the former holding a 30-20 advantage last season (including playoffs, per PFF) in targets beyond 20 yards downfield.
Best Stack: QB Goff + WR Cooks + WR Samuel
We can pair a running back with his team's defense to double our bet on favorable game script in certain matchups. Just keep in mind that the scoring correlations aren't nearly as strong as those between quarterbacks and pass catchers, so it isn't worth forcing into a lineup unless the prices for each individual commodity make sense. We also need to account for specialized backfield roles, i.e., using Sony Michel rather than James White in conjunction with the New England defense.
Chris Carson ($5,700) + Seahawks D/ST ($3,100) vs. CIN
- Seahawks favored by 9.5 points
- A.J. Green (ankle) out; Bengals LT Cordy Glenn (concussion) not looking good
- Bengals gave up the fourth-most rushing yards (113.7 per game) to RBs last season
- Bengals ranked 26th in run-defense DVOA last season
- Cincinnati's big offseason addition on defense was LB Preston Brown, who has never earned a PFF season grade above 66
Mark Ingram ($5,100) + Ravens D/ST ($3,800) vs. MIA
This is the same idea as Carson + Seahawks, but with a slightly lower point projection and a good chance of significantly lower ownership. The Ravens are 6.5-point favorites, facing a Miami team that's trotting out a cast of nobodies along the lines on both sides of the ball. If it sounds like a recipe for disaster, that's because it is. Everything sets up beautifully for a classic Fitzmagic implosion, which then would allow the Ravens to rely on their rushing attack throughout the second half.
Honorable Mention: Matt Breida ($4,000) + 49ers D/ST ($2,200) at TB
RB Le'Veon Bell, NYJ vs. BUF ($7,100)
Between Odell Beckham's hip and the tough matchups elsewhere, it doesn't look like a great week for the top WRs on the main slate. I'll still find a way to get Beckham and Julio Jones into some lineups, but the stronger play is a three-down back at a lower price, namely Mr. Bell. There's been a smidge of concern about Ty Montgomery poaching work, given Adam Gase's history of frustrating backfield usage. I'm not entirely writing off that possibility, but I also don't think we should give too much weight to what Gase did with C.J. Anderson, Jay Ajayi or Kenyan Drake. And if you really insist on playing that game, consider that the washed-up version of Matt Forte averaged 16.8 carries and 4.5 targets per game under Gase in 2015. The 100-percent snap shares from Pittsburgh may be gone, but that won't stop Bell from seeing 20 touches per week.
Honorable Mentions: Beckham, Jones, McCaffrey
Fading the Field
Every week we see at least one or two players carrying high ownership without the backing of a top point-per-dollar projection. Week 1 cuts down on the impact of recency bias, but we'll still see questionable logic produced by the offseason hype machine. In some cases, it even makes sense to fade a player with a great projection, particularly in weeks with other strong options at the same position.
QB Jameis Winston, TB vs. SF ($6,600)
Featuring a 51 O/U and a one-point spread, 49ers-Bucs is sure to be a popular stacking option, with Winston typically getting the nod over Jimmy Garoppolo ($5,800) given the hype surrounding Bruce Arians, Chris Godwin ($6,200) and O.J. Howard ($5,000). I'm fine with Godwin or Howard as volume-based plays in an offense that has nothing of value beyond its top three pass catchers, but I can't get on board with Winston at the second-highest price among quarterbacks.
The matchup isn't as good as it looks at first glance, with the 49ers bringing in defensive ends Dee Ford and Nick Bosa (ankle) and linebacker Kwon Alexander during the offseason. By no means am I saying this will be a great defense, or even a good one. However, there is a clear mismatch up front with Ford and DeForest Buckner taking aim at a substandard offensive line. Winston looked the furthest thing from comfortable during the preseason, with 16 completions and six sacks on 29 pass attempts.
Honorable Mentions: Austin Ekeler, LAC vs. IND ($5,500)
The SMASH Spot
Volume is king, no doubt. But we still need to account for efficiency, pinpointing situations that give players good odds to outperform their typical marks for YPA, YPC or YPT.
WR Marvin Jones, DET vs. ARI ($4,800)
Kenny Golladay ($6,300) is a Week 1 must-start in season-long lineups, but I'll take Jones with the huge discount and lower ownership for DFS. Sure, it makes sense for the 25-year-old physical freak to supplant the 29-year-old technician as Detroit's clear No. 1 wideout; just know that it didn't actually happen that way last season. In the nine games both receivers played, Jones went for 35-508-5 on 62 targets, compared to 39-601-4 for Golladay on 61 chances.
In any case, this is the type of matchup where a handful of targets could do the trick, considering the Cardinals open the season without starting cornerbacks Patrick Peterson (suspension) and Robert Alford (leg). The replacements? 31-year-old retread Traimaine Brock, rookie second-round pick Byron Murphy and someone named Chris Jones. Murphy is the only one with any upside, and the Arizona beat writers expect him to cover the slot (Danny Amendola) in nickel packages. With Kliff Kingsbury boosting overall volume from the other sideline, my only concern here is Matt Patricia's irrational desire to "establish the run". I guess this involves a shred of confidence that Patricia and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell might prioritize matchups over clichés.
The Bargain Bin
QB Kirk Cousins, MIN vs. ATL ($5,500)
QB Matthew Stafford, DET at ARI ($5,400)
RB Matt Breida, SF at TB ($4,000)
RB Miles Sanders, PHI vs. WAS ($3,900)
WR Christian Kirk, ARI vs. DET ($4,700)
WR Michael Gallup, DAL vs. NYG ($4,300)
WR Curtis Samuel, CAR vs. LAR ($4,200)
WR Jamison Crowder, NYJ vs. BUF ($4,100)
WR Marquise Goodwin, SF at TB ($4,000)
WR Rashard Higgins, CLE vs. TEN ($3,200)
WR Chris Conley, JAX vs. KC ($3,100)
TE Greg Olsen, CAR vs. LAR ($3,200)
TE Will Dissly, SEA vs. CIN ($2,900)
The "Sunday Scramble" doesn't need to be stressful. It's not so hard to formulate a plan ahead of time for the best way to respond once inactive lists are released.
WR Stefon Diggs (hamstring), MIN vs. ATL
Per usual, Week 1 appears light on crucial, last-second injury news, barring any further developments in whatever is going on with Odell Beckham and Julio Jones. That leaves Diggs as the most prominent player likely to be listed as 'questionable', with an absence potentially setting up Adam Thielen ($6,800) and Kyle Rudolph ($3,300) for extra targets. I'm already all-in on Dalvin Cook, so this situation probably won't have any impact on my lineups.
If you aren't on board with Cook and Hunter Henry (shame on you), I suppose Rudolph would be a savvy choice in the event of a Diggs absence. The red-nosed reindeer averaged 7.8 targets in the six games Diggs missed the past three years, though the numbers admittedly are skewed by a 2016 season that represents a huge outlier for Rudolph's volume. In case you were wondering... Thielen averaged 8.7 targets in the six games Diggs missed.
This slate isn't likely to be impacted by Hurricane Dorian or any other significant wind and precipitation, but there is some concern about heat in Miami, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. You might wonder why the NFL scheduled three games in Florida for Week 1? Good question. I don't have an answer.
In any case, it could be a limiting factor for Leonard Fournette and Mark Ingram. We already know the Chiefs, 49ers, Dolphins and Bucs are splitting backfield work, and it's not like Ingram was going to top a two-thirds snap share anyway. Given the numerous offseason fluff pieces about Fournette's improved conditioning (HE WENT TO WYOMING), it would be slightly amusing if he left the field with cramps after five carries in the opener. That said, we still have every other reason to expect a heavy workload against the subpar Chiefs defense. A few lost snaps here and there shouldn't ruin Fournette's afternoon.
Adjusting for FanDuel Prices
The prices listed in this article are from DraftKings, and while most of the logic applies to any DFS site, there are a few specific changes I'll need to apply for FanDuel:
- Moore ($6,200) instead of Samuel ($5,900) for a Rams-Panthers stack, given that FD barely puts a price gap between the two players.
- We also see a smaller price gap between Cam Newton ($7,900) and Jared Goff ($7,800). Plus, Newton is relatively more valuable on a site without the yardage bonuses (those favor Goff). FD is begging us to go with Newton-Moore-Cooks if we stack this game.
- The FD pricing algorithm tempts me to go all the way down for Dissly ($4,000) or all the way up for Travis Kelce ($7,800) or George Kittle ($7,300), rather than leaning exclusively on Henry ($6,100) at tight end.
- The Jets defense ($4,200) is a strong play, especially if you're already in on Lev-Bell ($7,900)
- I can see the argument for Winston when he's priced at No. 8 among QBs ($7,500) instead of No. 2. Of course, that also means we'll see higher ownership, and I still have zero confidence in his efficiency. It's a strong cash-game play on the basis of volume.
- Stafford ($6,600) and Nick Foles ($6,500) get a nice discount.