The Ultimate Guide to Researching Preseason NFL
Unless you live under a rock, you are probably aware that the NFL season kicks off in just over one month. With the start of the NFL season comes NFL DFS aka “Everyone’s best DFS sport.” Seriously, have you ever met anyone who doesn’t think they are the best at NFL DFS? I’m about to let you in on a little secret, you don’t have to wait until September 8th to start playing NFL. Well, at least playing something that resembles NFL. DraftKings has released their first preseason contests which start this Sunday. Those contests will run from Sunday to next Thursday, but they include just one game from Sunday and seven from next Thursday. DraftKings will almost assuredly post another Thursday-Only contest which you can also play and our friends at FantasyDraft, who will also be hosting preseason contests according to their representative who posted in the forums here on RotoGrinders.
At lot of people are going to say that preseason DFS is only for degenerate gamblers. Ignore those people, they either haven’t tried preseason or they simply aren’t willing to put in the work to be profitable. Over the last two preseasons, I’ve wagered $853 and won back $2,391 for a $1538 profit. To some of you reading this, that will sound like a pittance. To others, an extra $750 per season could have funded your entire NFL bankroll. Even if I wasn’t extremely profitable in NFL preseason, I would still play. Doing research and having a vested interest in the games makes preseason surprisingly watchable. At this point, I’m sure you are thinking “Where do I even start?” You’ve come to the right place, my friend. Over the next few thousand words, I’ll explain my process and then we will use that same process to break down the Hall of Fame (HOF) game.
The first step in my process is to understand the coaching strategy for the slate. Preseason games are simply exhibition games. The goal of every team in preseason is to find the best 53 players for their regular season roster and to remain injury-free. Every team will play four preseason games with the exception of the teams in the HOF game (Green Bay and Indianapolis), who will play five games. In the first preseason game, teams will sit some of their expected Week 1 starters while the rest will play somewhere between one series and one quarter. In the second game, we will see starters play closer to one quarter or more. In the third game, we will see starters for close to half the game, and in the fourth and final game we usually don’t see starters play at all. It is very important to understand which week of preseason you are playing in order to project playing time for starters/backups.
As I mentioned above, every team is trying to figure out which 53 players they want to keep on their roster. At the start of training camp, teams have 90 players on their roster. They must cut their roster down to 75 on September 1st (prior to the final preseason game) and then down to 53 by September 5th. As you can imagine, every play is important for coaches who are trying to decide who to keep and who to cut. Last year’s HOF game had a total of 149 plays including kickoffs. If you select a player who will see the field for up to a half the game, you might get 20-25 offensive snaps. We’ll use the basic DFS formula of Talent + Matchup +Opportunity to determine who we want play or avoid.
Talent + Matchup + Opportunity
Talent: Aaron Rodgers is really talented. Does that mean you should play him in the HOF game this weekend? No, you should definitely not play Aaron Rodgers this weekend as he isn’t even going to play a single snap on Sunday. The same goes for just about every starter or established veteran. Talent evaluation is going to be the smallest factor in any decision we make. With that said, talent does matter. Brittan Golden played four preseason games at WR for the Arizona Cardinals last year. He led the NFL in targets with 28 over that span. What did he do with those 28 targets? He caught 18 of them for 129 yards and 0 TDs. Even though Golden saw the most opportunity, he ended up being the 46th best WR. We can’t blame all of that on Golden. Just because a WR was targeted doesn’t mean the pass was catchable. All reps are not created equal. A seventh-string WR playing with a fourth-string QB behind and third-string offensive line isn’t necessarily what we are looking for. With WRs, we want to play guys who get as many opportunities possible with the 1s and 2s. For RBs, we just want carries, even if they come behind the third-string offensive line. With QBs, we want as many drop backs as possible, and finally, with TEs we want to avoid the guys who are strictly “blocking TEs.”
Matchup: The Broncos and Panthers are both on the SUN-THU slate this week. Those were two of the toughest defensive matchups last season. Should we avoid players against those teams in preseason? No, not entirely. Teams do not like to put a lot of information on film during the preseason. That means most teams are running a lot of “vanilla” defenses. On top of that, the best defenses like Carolina, Denver, and Seattle were a problem for fantasy because of personnel more than scheme. If you see a team on the slate with a shutdown corner, such as Darrelle Revis or Josh Norman, you will want to avoid anyone who sees the bulk of their action in that matchup. With that said, we know that Revis and Norman aren’t going to play the whole game and we don’t necessarily have to fear their backups. Matchup is the piece of the puzzle that matters the least to us. With matchups, we’ll mostly just avoid shutdown corners and try to pick players in fast-paced games (those with more plays being run).
Opportunity -The key to winning at preseason DFS rests right here in predicting opportunity. As I mentioned above, there might be 150 plays in a game and players can see anywhere from 5-30 snaps. We obviously want to avoid players on short end of snap counts and get as many as we can on the high end. The easiest way to do that is to find players in a battle for a roster spot or players in a position group riddled by injury. We’ll find most of our information about roster battles and injuries from beat writers as we dive into each team. An example of what I mean is the Philadelphia Eagles RB situation. If we open up the Eagles’ depth chart, we see they have five RBs. They are: 1.) Darren Sproles 2.) Ryan Mathews 3.) Kenjon Barner 4.) Wendell Smallwood 5. Cedric O’Neal. Darren Sproles is 33 years old and he isn’t battling for a roster spot. Ryan Mathews practiced today for the first time, but is unlikely to play in the first preseason game. Wendell Smallwood has an injured quad and should be considered questionable. That leaves all the RB snaps for Kenjon Barner and Cedric O’Neal. If you are choosing between a RB splitting carries with one other guy and a RB splitting carries with five other guys, the decision is pretty easy.
Now that we know what we are looking for, let’s discuss how to find it. When I write an NFL preseason article I prefer the team-by-team approach. For the larger single-day slates, I’ll write an article breaking down the options on each team. I’ll post as early as I can, but these articles typically won’t be available until a couple hours before lock. If you want to get started on your own, or even do your own research, you can use the same routine I do.
Depth Chart: The first thing you want to do is open up a copy of the depth chart for the team you are researching. You can find depth charts several places, but the source I prefer is www.ourlads.com. I’ve found they do the best job of providing updated and accurate information.
Injuries/Inactives: Throughout your research, you’ll find small pieces of information on who is injured and sometimes how many snaps the coach plans to use a player. You’ll want to keep this information organized in a manner that works for you. The way I do it is by downloading the player CSV file from DraftKings. I open that file in excel and click on the data tab and turn on the filter. That allows me to filter by team and then position. If I have time, I also label each player based on the depth chart (RB1, RB2, RB3, LWR1, LWR2, RWR7, etc). Then I fill in injury information and any useful notes I’ve come across. It also helps to keep track of the source of your notes in case you want to refer back for context.
Snap Counts: For Week 1 of the preseason we are sort of flying blind. We’ll have to rely on the information we can glean from beat writers and coaches. Starting in Week 2, we’ll be able to check the number of offensive snaps each player saw. You can do this by Googleing “Colts snap counts” and looking for the SBNation blog or any other source that analyzed snap counts. If you want, you can look back at 2015 game logs and snap counts, but that information isn’t useful unless you also under the context of who was in/out and what roster positions were contested.
Team Previews: As an Eagles fan, I follow my own team pretty closely. That’s how I already knew about the RB injury situation. For teams that I don’t follow closely, I try to read the same type of articles I read about the Eagles. For example, ESPN.com has a network of team blogs called NFL Nation. There is one reporter assigned to each team and they have been at training camp watching practices. These writers, along with the writers for each team’s official site, have the best feel for roster battles and who is looking like a breakout candidate. SBNation.com also has a network of blogs dedicated to each team. Reading as many articles and previews as you can will provide an in-depth knowledge of every team on the slate. Lastly, I always do a Google search to find game previews for each team. What I’ve found most useful is searching “What to Watch for Colts,” and then clicking on the news tab on Google. Doing this for each team will lead you to a collection of stories on injuries, roster battles, and training camp standouts. Make notes as you read through the articles.
Twitter: The last — but possibly most important — piece of your research should be searching on Twitter. Not every fan cares about preseason like we do. That means some pieces of information just aren’t valuable enough for an entire article. If the Falcons decide Julio Jones isn’t going to play, the team’s beat writer isn’t going to write an article, but he will probably tweet it out. If you don’t want to follow each team’s beat writer, you can simply subscribe to this list that our friends at Football Guys created. In fact, you don’t even need a Twitter account to view that list.
If you can’t find information on Twitter, you may want to ask the team’s beat writer. If you decide to do this, please do a search first to make sure your question hasn’t been answered already. Also, please be courteous. The way you ask these questions reflects on the DFS community. Some beat writers are more kind and helpful than others. In turn, make sure to click on the content those writers tweet out as this is how they make their living. If you support them, they’ll continue to supply you with the information you need.
Green Bay at Indianapolis—SUN August 7th, 8:00ET
Now that we have discussed how to research a preseason game, let’s apply it to the first game of the SUN-THU slate. Green Bay plays Indianapolis in the HOF game. The game is taking place on a neutral field in Canton, Ohio. Both teams in this game will play five preseason games while every other team plays only four. While an extra game is great for evaluating talent, many of the players and coaches hate being involved. As a point of reference, here is the box score from last year’s HOF game. The Steelers beat the Vikings 14-3 in a game that featured just 429 total yards. Landry Jones was the only QB who took a snap for the Steelers and he finished 15/32 for 128 yards and an interception. If you avoided every single player from this game, all you really missed out on was Vikings backup TE MyCole Pruitt catching four passes for 51 yards and a touchdown. Every other player on both side finished with less than 10 DK points (including the QBs).
If you want to go back two years to the 2014 HOF game, here is the box score. The Giants beat the Bills 17-13. A few players were able to surpass 10 DK points, but the important thing to note is the Giants ran the ball 38 times and passed 22. The Bills ran 21 and passed 40. Why the discrepancy, you ask? The Giants knew Eli Manning would be their QB Week 1. They just wanted to grind the clock out and get out of Canton injury-free. The Bills were trying to decide on a QB, so they gave Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel 17 passes each while EJ Manuel threw seven. The point I’m trying to make here is that the HOF game is usually a bust for fantasy purposes. Many of your opponents are going to load up on players from this game. The right move is to take no one from this game and use the late-swap feature to set your lineups next Thursday once we know more about those games. Based on past history, it is unlikely you’ll regret fading this game. Even if someone does have a great game, there will be players with similar upside available next Thursday.
Quarterback: Now that I just made the case for why you should fade this game, I’ll present the counter-argument. Aaron Rodgers is not likely to play on Sunday. The backup QB — Brett Hundley — was originally going to play significant time in this game. He injured his ankle and sat out the last two days of practice. That leaves just two QBs available for Green Bay in Marquise Williams and Joe Callahan. Both Callahan and Williams are undrafted rookies. Callahan played college for Division 3 Wesley College. He has worked with the third-string, so it is likely he would start ahead of Williams, but the reps should still be split pretty evenly. If you played NCAA DFS (RIP) last season, you already know about Marquise Williams of North Carolina. Williams was known as much for his scrambling ability as his passing ability. If the protection breaks down, Williams could certainly pick up some rushing yards. I haven’t had a chance to fully research the Thursday slate, but my gut tells me there will be better options than Williams/Callahan. If you want to sprinkle in some Williams or Callahan on your teams, though, you certainly can. I prefer Williams here even if he doesn’t start as he has the better pedigree.
Running Back: The Packers’ depth chart lists their RBs as: 1.) Eddie Lacy 2.) James Starks 3.) John Crockett 4.) Brandon Burks 5.) Brandon Ross. McCarthy hasn’t officially said who will play and who will not as of right now. Nothing really jumps out at me here, though. I already mentioned above that the Eagles will be down to 2-3 RBs. It doesn’t make sense to try to pick one of these five unless the herd gets thinned down between now and Sunday.
Wide Receiver: The Packers are looking to clear a bottleneck at WR this preseason. Jordy Nelson is still on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list after tearing his ACL last season and Cobb is unlikely to play much at all. Especially since Cobb was injured last preseason and he’s also coming off an injury in the playoffs. Ty Montgomery should fight for the third WR spot this preseason, but he is also on the PUP list. That’s ok though, the Packers still have nine(!) other WRs on their 90-man roster. It’s going to be tough to evaluate anything we see on Sunday because the WRs will have Williams and Callahan throwing them the ball. If you want to take a long shot on someone, Geronimo Allison has some familiarity with Marquise Williams as they have run together in practice. Allison is WR5 listed on the depth chart, though. Ahead of him is Jared Abberderis, who should see a decent amount of action. You can also consider Jeff Janis — who always performs in the preseason — but I usually don’t start playing Janis until the second or third preseason game. Overall, if tradition holds up, the Packers might throw the ball 25-30 times but that could be split 9-10 different ways.
Quarterback: I’m pretty sure Chuck Pagano hates me. When asked, Pagano said Andrew Luck and the starters will all play on Sunday. What he didn’t say was how long. It’s surprising that Pagano would risk Andrew Luck in this game, but we can all but guarantee Luck will not play extensively. After Luck, we’ll see Scott Tolzein (in a revenge game?) and Stephen Morris. If I play a QB in this game – -and I probably won’t — it will be one from the Packers’ side.
Running Back: The Colts depth chart lists six RBs, so I don’t have a lot of interest here. The one name that intrigues me though is undrafted rookie Josh Ferguson. The Colts know that Frank Gore will be their starter this season. Behind Gore, Robert Turbin seems entrenched as the backup, but by all accounts, Ferguson is shooting up the depth chart. In fact, Ferguson took some reps Thursday with the first-team. If you are the Colts, and you want to get a long look at an undrafted rookie RB, what better time is there than the HOF game? You should exercise caution here though. This is a crowded situation with six RBs on the roster, but Ferguson is certainly worth a shot in a cheap GPP or two.
Wide Receiver: The absolute most difficult thing about NFL preseason is selecting a WR. Just like the Packers, the Colts have 12 WRs on their roster. Pagano said the starters will play, so you have to assume that extends to everyone. I still wouldn’t play TY Hilton or Donte Moncrief, but I might be willing to take a flyer on Quan Bray. The other name that keeps popping up is Chester Rogers. He is buried deep down the depth chart, but these are the guys that need to make a case early in the preseason if they want to make the team. Again, keep in mind the Colts might throw the ball 25-30 times which might be just 2-3 targets for any of their WRs.
That should wrap things up for this article. Hopefully, I’ll see you out there in some preseason contests this season. If you have any questions, drop them in the comments below or come join the strategy discussion in the Preseason Week One thread.