Daily Fantasy Football: An Introduction to Research
Under most circumstances, "research" is the equivalent of a four-letter word. If you use it, you can be certain those around you will react negatively.
And who can blame them? We spent our educational careers knowing that research meant late nights in the library and/or last-minute Wikipedia binges. It carries a gross connotation for our younger selves.
Daily fantasy sports is a bit different. For me, researching for a slate is my favorite part. Sure, I enjoy sweating out the games over the weekend, but the research is what helps to make that exciting. When the hard work you did helps you identify a player who has a big game, you'll be feeling fine and dandy for days.
Eventually, you'll all develop your individual methods for compiling research. However, in case you're looking for some guidance in getting started, I'll go through the process I use. This is not by any stretch of the imagination the only way to do your research. But if you need a jumping off point, let's break down some methods I have found useful.
Vegas Lines and numberFire Metrics
My research for the upcoming week begins on Sunday night of the week before. I'll find the NFL schedule for the next slate and put all of the games into one spreadsheet. This way, I can easily see the schedule in a smaller space and know which teams are at home and which are on the road.
After doing so, I'll pull any information Vegas has published for those games. The lines won't be set yet for all games, so you'll have to check back later in the week to finish filling out the sheet. I went through where to find this information and how to use it in a separate lesson. I'd go there for a more complete summation, but it bears repeating: this is crazy-important information.
The information that I put into my spreadsheet is the over/under and the spread of each game. That is then used to generate an implied team total (the over/under divided by two minus the spread for each team). This allows you to see which teams are projected to score the most points on the slate and which are projected to find themselves in positive game script.
The next step is pulling in numberFire's metrics. You can access these through the team power rankings page. I will wait to jot down this information until Tuesday morning so that I can have the most recent information and a larger sample size when making my decisions.
Once again, we've got a full write-up of how to leverage numberFire's analytics into success, and I'd recommend buzzing through that if you haven't yet. I use it in this instance to spot which top offenses are facing defenes that are struggling. Doing so can help me identify which players I feel will be in position to have a big game and where I may be able to find some value.
If you want to see an example of what this initial sheet looks like, we post them up on numberFire for each week of the season. This example comes from Week 10 of the 2015 season, where the New England Patriots appeared to be in a great spot across the board against the New York Giants. Both Vegas and numberFire's indicated that the Patriots' offense would be able to move the ball with ease against the Lions, so it made sense to flood your rosters with Patriots players.
Obviously, the research doesn't just stop there. I spend a good chunk of my time looking at numberFire's metrics and Vegas's lines, but there are other elements to consider. Let's move to those next.
Once I'm able to identify the potential soft spots to exploit, I'll make a list of the players I want to use. This generally starts with a pretty decent number of players as I don't want to rule anyone potentially useful out too early. This is usually around four quarterbacks, five to eight running backs, seven to 10 receivers, and a few tight ends and defenses.
This is when I start to look deeper into the individuals for the first time. For wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends, I want to know what their usage has been recently. This is another spreadsheet for me.
Throughout the season, I track how many targets each player gets in each game. This way I have all of the information in one spot and can easily see fluctuations in a player's role. If one receiver is seeing 27 percent of his team's targets, and they're facing a bad pass defense, then I know I'm going to want a piece of that action. Tracking this usage throughout the year is an easy way to spot that.
If there's a wide receiver or tight end I want to use, I'll just look at the sheet to ensure they've been involved in the offense over the past few weeks. If you don't have a sheet, you can also see the same information on most statistical websites. I default to Pro Football Reference's game logs, but you've got options from which to choose.
With running backs, there are a few additional items involved. After also looking at targets, I'll then make sure they're getting plenty of carries. If those carries are coming in the red zone, then this is an even bigger boost for their value. The ideal situation is a running back who is handling a majority of his team's carries, including those in close, facing a bad rush defense. If you can find that, you should have one less decision to make.
Another element of research when it comes to usage is snap counts. Shockingly, it is difficult to score fantasy points when you're not on the field. You can also find these in various spots, but I tend to look at Football Outsiders, where I can toggle it to show the snap counts by week. You can also download their tables into a spreadsheet if you so wish.
Once I've checked out all of this and the player still looks attractive, I'll advance on to the next step of integrating fantasy output into my research.
How to Implement Fantasy-Points-Based Research
It should be noted that this is one of the final steps in my research for a reason. I put much more value in numberFire's analytics about where teams are deficient than in fantasy-output-based scoring. But I do think we can get value out of this if it is implemented properly.
The main reason I will look at how defenses have fared versus various positions is to try to spot obvious shortcomings. For example, in 2015, the New York Giants had a clear inability to stop tight ends. Even though their overall pass defense was in the middle of the pack, they consistently allowed tight ends to put up big numbers against them. So, if there was a tight end who was mildly involved with the offense facing the Giants, I'd give him a boost in my valuation.
This data can also help you see which type of player at each position has excelled against each team. If you notice that a bunch of slot receivers have ripped the Detroit Lions to shreds, that should stick out to you. If pass-catching running backs have been racking up the yardage against the team, you should again weigh that into your decision making.
Finding these stats is pretty easy. I'd recommend Fantasy Data. Here, you can sort by week, position, team, season, and on and on and on. You can also export all of the data to Excel, which is the avenue I have found the easiest so I can easily search and find how teams have fared against various positions. FFData is another option as it allows you to see the data split over the last three or five weeks, which can also be helpful at times.
There are obviously several major disclaimers with this. First, I wouldn't put too much weight into points-versus-position stats early in the season. If you're looking at last year's stats, personnel has likely changed heavily over the offseason. This means that one team's weakness from the previous year may no longer be a weakness.
Additionally, if you're looking at points allowed early in the current year, it may be skewed by big performances. If the Giants had only faced Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen, they'd obviously look bad against tight ends. Do some digging and make sure the information you're seeing is signal rather than noise.
There is a huge caveat to all of this. Those things can change easily as injuries rack up throughout the season. This is why it's important to pay attention to the news, which is our final -- though possibly most critical -- portion of research.
Staying In Tune With NFL News
I'm putting this part of my research last, but it is not the aspect I do last. It's part of the research you need to be doing all of the time.
Being aware of the most recent news with each team is vital, and news is happening all thorughout the week. Tracking the injury status, personnel changes, and fluctuations in philosophy can give you a big leg up in identifying which teams are ripe for the targeting.
An example here would be the 2015 Carolina Panthers. In Week 1, linebacker Luke Kuechly went down with an injury. He wasn't able to play again until Week 6. Entering that week, the Panthers were 27th against the rush, according to numberFire's metrics. By Week 10, they were back up to 15th. Knowing that Kuechly was returning might indicate that the Panthers were no longer a team to target with your running back.
Thankfully, staying up to date with the news is super easy. I'd recommend bookmarking numberFire's player news page. The nuggets are short, easy to digest, and they put an analytics spin on the news. You can just open the page, take 10 minutes a night to read through all of the updates, and move on with your life. It's not a time-consuming aspect of your research, but just making that effort will help you make better, more informed decisions.
Allow me just to state again that this is simply the process I use. Once you've been playing a bit longer, you'll have your own style for research that is both useful -- and fun -- for you. This is merely a place to start if you need some help.
You can read all of the analysis you want, but it's your own research that will truly give you an advantage. That first time you're able to find a diamond in the rough who has a big game, you'll know how great the feeling is, and hopefully you can enjoy the process along the way.