Introduction to NFL Preseason DFS Research and Strategy
Playing NFL Preseason DFS presents unique challenges and situations that are unlike that of any other niche sport. There are significant differences in how you must research and execute your daily fantasy football lineups. Not only does the strategy and research methodology vary from regular season DFS, but it also varies week to week within the preseason schedule itself.
This article will help you understand some of the basic methods you can use to be consistently better informed and prepared than a large portion of your opponents entering DFS tournaments.
What to Remember (If You Learn Nothing Else)
NFL Preseason DFS can be summarized in four words. If you want to have a chance to win a slate, do this:
Find Athletes with Opportunity
To be more specific, what I really mean is to find the best athletes with the most opportunity. You can’t score fantasy points unless your player is actually on the field (opportunity), and the players who have the best chance of being on the field are usually the best young athletes that the NFL teams still need to evaluate.
Staying focused on the assessment of playing time and player ability is a simple, effective mantra for playing Preseason DFS.
Expanding on that, here is what you need to be prepared for to make the best decisions possible:
— Understand the process NFL teams go through to create rosters.
— Identify team needs to balance preparation with evaluation in preseason.
— Use player age, roster status, and depth to predict playing time ranges.
— Know the traditional differences in how teams use each week of the schedule.
— Be ready to research, and locate key sources of information.
— Use athletic metrics to help make decisions when information is scarce.
— Be aware of the DFS game format difference in preseason.
How do NFL Teams Use the Preseason?
It is helpful to put the entire offseason in context when trying to make sense of how teams are using the preseason. Winning games equals making money in the business of the NFL. Thus, there is an arc that starts as soon as the previous season ends in which teams are working to reshape and improve their chance of winning in the future. The current construct of the NFL offseason looks something like this:
Early January: NFL coaching/front office moves occur.
Late January: Teams attend college all-star games and complete other preparation for workout season.
February/March: The NFL combine and pro-days occur. Athletics are quantified and interviews/research conducted.
March: Free Agency and veteran player movement begins.
April: The NFL Draft occurs and the top college talents are selected.
April/May: College free agents are signed and shuffled around. Rosters are now set at or around 90 players per team.
April-June: Organized Team Activities (OTAs), Rookie Camps, and Team Mini Camps are held. Player evaluations ensue.
Late July: Training Camps begin.
Early August: Preseason games begin.
After the fourth game: Rosters must be reduced from 90 men to 53 men and a maximum of 10 players on the “practice squad”
The entire calendar above is all leading up to that very last step. Going from 90 men to 53 men requires as much information as possible on ALL of the players on the roster, and it is very important to understand that preseason games are one of the most important tools teams use to evaluate the backend of the 90 man roster.
Knowing that teams have tough decisions to make on their roster can help us understand how they’ll deploy their players. NFL teams need to balance the need to get their established players ready to play while evaluating and developing their depth. This creates a few key situational archetypes we need to be aware of in order to better gauge their prospective playing time on a given week.
— High-Value Assets: Certain players – especially high value running backs and wide receivers – are going to see very limited playing time as teams protect their most prized possessions from undue injury risk. Example: Julio Jones
— Assets Recovering from Injury: If an asset is worth anything at all to the team and has been recently injured, it’s fair to expect some limitation on their playing time during the exhibition season. Example: Derrius Guice
— Established Veterans: Preseason games are largely a tool for evaluation, and teams are relying on joint practices more and more for preparation. Veteran players will often find themselves on the lower rungs of playing time as a result, as they have already established their capabilities in the league. Example: Vernon Davis
— Position Battles: The biggest exception to the above archetype is the established player engaged in a position battle. These players may often find themselves on the field more than usual as teams work to sort through a tougher decision. Example: Case Keenum
— Acclimating Top Young Prospects: Some talent, such as high draft selections or ascending players who may be moving up the depth chart, are in need of live repetitions and exposure to in-game action to get them ready for potentially key roles on the team. These players often find themselves seeing roster worthy snap totals. Example: Kyler Murray, Tony Pollard
— Young Roster Candidates: Some of the very best preseason options will be from this group. These are the players hovering around the borderline of the roster bubble that teams desire additional game film to evaluate. Example: Brandon Zylstra, Dylan Cantrell
— Young Developmental Talent: Late in games and during preseason week 4, the very backend of the roster gets a chance to shine. Teams will often find spots to give their most interesting long shots a chance to put their best foot forward. Example: Jazz Ferguson, Alex Barnes, Emmanuel Hall
Every team and situation is different, but these groups are a simple way to think about players based on archetypes. Young, ascending players have a much better chance to play significant snaps than established, higher salary players.
Always consider the age, health, tenure, depth position, and team needs in preseason play. The forum is largely misunderstood as a vehicle for preparation, when it is actually more often used as a vehicle for evaluation.
As mentioned, teams are looking to get to their best possible 53 players. They’ll be focused on getting the information they need to make those decisions.
What to Expect Each Week in Terms of Player Opportunity
Week 1: Expect most teams to dabble a series or two of starters, and then pass the torch for split reps between roster competitors and top-end developmental talents.
Week 2: Starters play a more substantial volume, but still give way to the deeper roster positions somewhere between one quarter and one half into the game.
Week 3: Starters play roughly 1/2 to almost 3/4 of the game for many teams.
Week 4: No starters at all. Teams almost exclusively use this week to put the deepest portions of their roster on film, and get extended looks at players before making final decisions.
Every team is different in how they approach the use of starters. However, the vast majority of situations will look something like this.
The Information Sources
The biggest and most important part of Preseason DFS is getting the right information to predict player opportunity. Below, you will find a brief list of possible information sources that add tremendous value to our efforts to predict opportunity.
— RotoGrinders, where we will be laser-focused on scouring all sources and reporting to you each slate.
— PlayerProfiler.com- learn about player athletic traits and advanced metrics
— Official NFL 90 Man Rosters ( example )
— NFL Player Age, Experience, and Tenure with Current Team (example )
— Historical Preseason Snaps (Pro Football Focus is a good source)
— Unofficial Depth Charts ( example )
— Team Websites ( example )
— Team Focused Blogs from Reputable Sources ( example )
— Team Beat Reporters ( example )
— Local Newspaper Websites / Media Outlets ( example )
— Team Media Availability and Press Conferences ( example )
— Unofficial practice reports ( example: scroll to the bottom )
— Transaction reports / PUP list monitoring / Other injury reporting
— Twitter (this is especially important close to lock)
We should be scouring these information sources seeking to understand which players are available to play, how much they are likely to play in a given week, and whether or not they will be a focal point of opportunity once they get on the field.
It is absolutely critical that we identify the most trustworthy sources of information. Accurate information is the cornerstone that we will use to predict preseason opportunity.
Using Athletic Traits to Select Young Players
Once we know who will play for each team, our job is not done. Many players will have similar playing time projections, and we need a way to differentiate one from the other. Since many of these players have never played a down in the NFL, one of the best tools to separate one from the other is via their athletic skills.
As an example, I read headlines last summer out of Denver, such as “WR Tim Patrick is the sleeper no one saw coming at Broncos Camp.”
Immediately, I go to a site like our data partners at PlayerProfiler.com to examine the athletic profile.
Sure enough, this rookie had a LOT to like physically. He didn’t wind up destroying in preseason, but it should come as no surprise that he eventually appeared in 10 regular season games despite not even being drafted. His athletic testing matched the superior performances being noticed in practice… and that eventually translated to the player being a part of the 53 man roster down the line.
There is no universal law that says all players who test well athletically will be good players (plenty of “workout warriors” out there) or that players can’t work on their bodies. There will always be exceptions, but in general, players that tested well pre-draft have a better chance than individuals that tested poorly.
We will be faced with decisions using limited information. Athletic metrics are a viable puzzle piece to use when deciding between players.
Here is a quick guide to understanding the metrics at PlayerProfiler.com, which is where I’d point you if you really want to make it easy on yourself.
40-Yard Dash: The obvious speed indicator. For QB and TE, any 40-yard dash under 4.70 seconds is fast. RB and WRs that run under 4.50 are considered to be on the speedy side. So of course we want our skill players to be fast but…
Size Adjusted Speed Score: This adds a premium for size when measuring speed. Being fast is not as good as being both big AND fast. Particularly for WRs and TEs, the adjustment for a player’s height helps to contextualize the advantage that comes with long strides, a large catch radius, and a larger frame.
Agility: Players who run the 20-yard short shuttle and 3 cone drill will have those times summed to create an agility score on PlayerProfiler. This helps you understand lateral quickness and elusiveness potential for a player.
Burst: This is a way to test for “stop and start” explosiveness. This skill has many advantages in pro-football, including a back’s acceleration through the hole and a receiver’s ability to create separation.
SPARQ-x: The standardized test for athleticism, it accounts for multiple drills into a single formula for overall ability. PlayerProfiler.com doesn’t have the secret sauce used by NIKE to measure official SPARQ-x, but they have done the dirty work to create a close approximation. Generally speaking, we should be interested in athletes who score well in this metric.
Throw Velocity: Measured in MPH, it’s a gauge of “arm strength.”
Hand Size: The current belief is that hand size can be an important predictor of success, as larger hands allow a player to grip the ball more firmly among other things. There are certainly small hand QBs who succeed, so I wouldn’t be totally obsessed with this one.
I will say that QB is typically the most challenging position to gauge, as mental ability is perhaps more important than physical skills. The Wonderlic test tells us very little in that regard.
Size/BMI: Generally speaking, the puny little 5’8’‘, 175 lb backs that come into the league never become workhorse players. They are the “satellite” back archetypes that you want to try to get in space. Players with greater height, weight, and body mass tend to fit the profile of being more durable at the NFL level. They also tend to find their way onto the field more often, especially in combination with speed and agility. The point is that you can understand what type of player you are dealing with largely from his frame. “Individuals with high BMIs tend to be built more like bowling balls, an ideal stature for an NFL running back. Therefore, BMI indicates a running back’s relative sturdiness.”- excerpt from PlayerProfiler.com
Catch Radius / Arm Length: Catching the ball matters, and being able to extend for the football in the red zone and on inaccurate passes will very much help a receiver be successful.
You can read more about these metrics here. If you want to find good players before the world at large, a fantastic place to start is knowing their quantified athletic traits.
The Difference in Game Structures and Strategy on DFS sites
In regular season DFS, we have a salary cap to deal with and we can’t always have everything we want. In preseason DFS, the sites have effectively made it a pick ‘em by giving each player an identical salary. This means we literally can have whatever we want.
Here are some basic rules to live by in this world of roster freedom:
Raw Projection is King: Without the salary cap, we’re basically tasked with creating the most accurate raw projection possible and using that as a guide to identify the best overall plays.
Be Smart, but Be Different: There will always be players and situations that everyone sees as viable. These situations will be tremendously popular as there is no salary cap barrier to slow down momentum. We should be carefully evaluating the leverage to be gained by moving off these spots in favor of other high potential, highly smart situations. With the depth of options that will be available in every slate, there will always be value in establishing high ceiling rosters that are strategically differentiated.
Don’t Overthink it: Just because we want to be different does not mean we have to be wacky. Some spots are just good regardless of popularity, and we should just play those spots and make our opponents prove they know it’s good too. We don’t need an entire roster of differentiation. A few spots per team will do, and if we’re doing enough research… we’ll easily find situations the public at large can’t even fathom.
Don’t Focus on the Traditional Rules of NFL DFS: I’m talking about stacking, avoiding using players on the same team, which player to use in the flex, etc. Sure you can stack, but the advantage is not nearly as pronounced. The inter-game correlation is not nearly guaranteed when “bringing it back” (teams aren’t necessarily as focused on winning the game, so time and score matter much less). Snap counts and opportunity are so diluted that you’ll be surprised what kinds of scores win tournaments. While you probably still want to avoid using players who can steal precious TDs from each other, it’s very difficult to find situations where that will obviously be the case and in which you want to play both guys anyway. Don’t lock yourself totally into the laws that govern your regular season play, and in fact be more willing than your opponents to ignore them.
Create Lineup Diversity: You can take strong positions, but don’t be a hero if you have a ton of lineups. The uncertainty and variance are even higher than usual in preseason DFS. If you are making multiple teams, ensure that they are working together and not fully clustered together. Set your lineup builder to include 3+ unique players, and ensure you set a reasonable cap on exposure to anyone but your conviction plays. By all means, ignore this if you want to play a high variance style, but I would prefer to find a few core plays and diversify around them.
The Final Word
NFL preseason football is all about getting access to quality information that allows us to know who the best young athletes are, and how much they will play in a given slate. If you have the time, dig deep to find out how the various teams are approaching the use of their established players and which players stand the best chance of being on the field.
Also, take the time to learn about young players and how their athletic abilities project to translate to the NFL. Often times, you’ll find the best athletes are the ones that wind up getting the most opportunity. If we know these things better than everyone else, we’ll properly identify the athletes with opportunity often enough to win.