Pairing a Quarterback with his Receiver(s)

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One of the most popular tactics in daily fantasy football is of course “stacking.” Technically speaking, stacking is using a whole bunch of players from the same team – most popular in baseball – but the term has been loosened to include quarterback/wide receiver pairings.

Naturally, we kind of know that pairing a wide receiver with his quarterback is going to increase upside and risk at the same time since the duo is dependent on one another for production. If you look at the numbers, you see a ridiculously strong relationship between quarterback and wide receiver fantasy points. From Fantasy Football (and Baseball) for Smart People:

When playing daily fantasy football, you can increase upside by pairing your quarterback with one of his receivers. If the quarterback has a big day, which is pretty much a prerequisite for taking down a tourney, it’s highly likely that your pass-catcher will produce as well. Take a look at the strong correlation between quarterback points and team wide receiver points.

When a quarterback has at least 30 points on DraftKings, there’s roughly a 91.7 percent chance that his wide receivers will combine for 30 or more points, an 83.3 percent chance of them checking in above 40 points, a two-in-three probability of 50-plus points, and incredibly a one-in-three chance of at least 70 combined points.

That last tidbit is really surprising – a one-in-three chance of 70 combined receiver points when a quarterback posts 30? That’s ridiculous.

So to say stacking in daily fantasy football tournaments is a smart strategy is an understatement; pretty much every top player pairs a quarterback with at least one of his wide receivers in every large league.

In cash games, though, you’re not concerned solely with upside, but also consistency. We know that stacking is volatile, but can the upside make up for the inconsistency?

The Relationship Between QB and WR Production

There are a handful of ways to determine if pairing a quarterback and wide receiver on the same team is “worth it” in cash games. I chose to look at how often receivers kill it when their quarterbacks do the same versus how frequently the two “tank” together.

Looking at quarterbacks who played full seasons over the past two years, I broke down their production into buckets, analyzing their top-four and top-eight games. Here’s how the production for their WR1 and WR2 looks in those buckets.

If a wide receiver’s play weren’t tied to that of his quarterback, we’d expect a wide receiver to have a top-four fantasy game—that is, one of his best four games on the year – 25 percent of the time when his quarterback does the same. So we’re looking at a quarterback’s top-four (or top-eight) fantasy games, then determining how frequently his wide receivers turn in the same sort of performance.

Well, both WR1s and WR2s produce top-four and top-eight games at a rate greater than what would be produced from chance alone, which is what we’d expect. When a quarterback has a top-four performance, there’s a 40 percent chance that his No. 1 wide receiver also has a top-four performance and a 33 percent chance that it happens for his No. 2 wide receiver.

Not surprisingly, WR1 production is more closely linked to his quarterback than WR2 production. That means that pairing a top receiver with his quarterback possesses more upside than doing the same with a No. 2 receiver and his quarterback. But is it much riskier, too?

Here, I’m looking at the same thing as the first graph, except with bottom-four/eight performances. So if a quarterback lays a dud (one of his worst four/eight games), how likely is it that his wide receivers did the same?

Again, the results exceed the random expectation. But there’s actually a stronger correlation than with the top performances; WR1s have a 50 percent chance of having one of their worst four performances of the year when their quarterback does the same. The rate is 38 percent for WR2s.

Now let’s compare that risk with the upside from the initial graph.

What we want to see here is that the “top-four” correlations outweigh the “bottom-four.” They don’t. For both WR1s and WR2s, there’s more risk in playing with their quarterback on fantasy football teams than there is upside.

Note that the effect switches with “top-eight” performances, but just slightly. Those results aren’t significant, while the gap in the “top-four” category is meaningful.

When to Stack

One of the important things to remember in cash games is that consistency can matter as much as total points. We always want players projected to score a lot of points, but it’s preferable to create a team that has a high floor from week to week.

Stacking a wide receiver with his quarterback decreases your floor, and it doesn’t seem that your team’s week-to-week ceiling will rise enough to compensate for the downside. You’re kind of creating an asymmetrical team – which is actually the goal – but in the wrong direction.

So should you ever stack? You should do it all the time if you need upside, like in GPPs. When a wide receiver is almost the sole focus of his quarterback – like the Stafford-to-Johnson connection in Detroit – it creates a more volatile relationship.

It really comes down to targets. When a wide receiver sees a lot of targets – as in a WR1 – he’s less likely to “get lucky” in regards to efficiency. As sample size increases, numbers regress toward the mean. Compare that to a WR2 who sees fewer overall targets, and thus a more volatile distribution from week to week. He’s more likely to be able to turn in one of his better games, even if his quarterback isn’t on point, because he doesn’t need a truly elite game (like a WR1) to have a top-four performance.

Another huge factor at play is the cost. Spending top-dollar on a quarterback and receiver who play on the same team is expensive and risky. You don’t want to bypass teammates if both are of obvious value, but when things are close, it’s best to diversify in a head-to-head format.

And finally, note that this general heuristic might not extend to all sports. I’m going to do some more research on this topic for my next book on daily fantasy baseball, but I think there’s good evidence to suggest stacking isn’t a poor strategy in MLB cash games.

About the Author

  • Jon Bales (JonBales)

  • Jonathan Bales is the founder of RotoAcademy and author of the Fantasy Sports for Smart People book series.

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