Each time we peruse our fantasy football lineup, we are constantly looking for an edge or some new bit of information with regards to whether we’re trotting out the best available talent for that week. Often times, we end up starting the wrong lineup anyways even though we check the same list of players countless times from Monday up to the remaining minutes before kickoff! What if there was some sort of systematic method which would yield the necessary empirical data we could run through to ensure that we’re not banging our heads against a wall come Tuesday morning when we realized we could have eked out a victory if we had started a different defense or WR/RB flex option?
Behold – the thirteen-point checklist that will both save you a headache and ensure peace of mind when your lineup is due at 10am PST/1pm EST Sunday. Please bear in mind that fantasy football is 60% luck, so even if you run through all the below-mentioned criteria with a fine-tooth comb, you may still end up on the wrong side of the score if your QB1 gets hurt on his offense’s second series of the game.
1. CHECK HEALTH OF YOUR PLAYERS – I don’t need to tell you that if you see an “O” next to your player, that means do not, under any circumstances, start him. Only in extremely rare occasions would you start a player listed as doubtful. If you lack any backup quarterbacks, and your QB1 is listed as doubtful, then you might as well start him if there are no available starting options in the free agent pool. If your QB gives you the best chance of putting up points from that position and your only other option for points is hoping Jim Sorgi gets some mopup stats in a Colts blowout victory, then you might as well go with your QB1. But each situation is unique, as no two injuries or players are the same. But sometimes a player is listed as questionable, and you’re not sure whether he’ll play, and if so, how much will he play? Many players throughout their careers play consistently with a questionable tag (Brian Westbrook, Clinton Portis, Donovan McNabb, Hines Ward, and Anquan Boldin are but a few who have beaten the questionable tag in years’ past). But you should only start someone listed as questionable if you lack a capable backup unless that player who is questionable is one of the NFL’s premier “tough guys.”
2. HOME OR AWAY? – It stands to reason that home matchups are more favorable than when your players play on the road in a hostile environment. Factors include, but are not limited to: distracting crowd noise, the inconvenience of traveling across multiple time zones, and referees’ tendencies to make calls that favor the home team. Road matchups don’t necessarily dictate who you should start vs bench. If your player is facing an NFL doormat like St. Louis or Detroit on the road, that is certainly more favorable than playing at home against Baltimore, Pittsburgh, or New York.
3. BYE WEEK / COMING OFF A BYE WEEK? – 99% of the time, it is better to start a player who is actually playing that week. While this logic seems insultingly elementary, I can name multiple occasions from this season alone where the owner who started JaMarcus Russell, Derek Anderson, or Mark Sanchez wished they had started their QB2 who was off that week, essentially a warm body, instead of their QB3. As a result, Russell, D.A. and Mr. Hot Dog accrued negative stats. Negative stats will occur when a player causes multiple turnovers, no touchdowns and very little yardage. If you had started Joe Montana or Y.A. Tittle, those long-since-retired players in your lineup would have helped your team more than the aforementioned three quarterbacks on the wrong week. It’s tough to recommend benching Derek Anderson when he goes into Baltimore for a warm body when you have no other options, because the logic is counter-intuitive. After all, if a player on your team can’t be trusted to accumulate positive stats, then why is he even on your team in the first place?! Until you lose a game by 1.34 points when your QB3 who was acquired for a spot start garners -2.12 points, this approach may not seem logical at all. But trust me, it HAS happened!
When your players are coming off a bye week, not only are they physically and mentally refreshed from the (usually much-needed) week off, but they have also had an extra week to prepare for their upcoming opponent, as well as work out the kinks in their game. Players who are coming off a bye are typically a plus matchup for these three reasons mentioned above. But it is also important to remember that this is but one criterion, so don’t take too much stock in starting Correll Buckhalter if he’s coming from a week off to face the Ravens while benching Steven Jackson as he take on the Lions. Start your studs unless they’re on bye or injured.
4. CHECK OPPONENT’S TEAM DEFENSIVE RANKING / GAME HISTORY IN MATCHUPS – When I am often torn between which wide receiver to start as my WR3 or whether to start a RB or WR at my flex position, I will consult the NFL team statistical rankings, which can be found by clicking here. If your RB3 is facing the league’s 30th ranked rush defense, then you should probably start that player at your flex as opposed to your WR3 if said WR3 is facing the 13th ranked pass defense.
In the first month of the regular season, the data sample may be too small to properly analyze matchups based on numbers alone. If it’s early in the season (say, before Week 5), you might want to check specific games from Weeks 1-4 in lieu of overall performance in case the overall statistical data proves misleading. Early-season blowouts against patsy opponents can mislead owners to start the wrong personnel if said personnel is scheduled to play an opponent far better than any they had yet to play. For example, if your RB3 has feasted on the likes of the Raiders, Buccaneers and Rams Weeks 1-3, you may want to think twice before starting him over a WR3 at your flex if he faces Pittsburgh’s second-ranked rush defense Week 4.
5. READ BETWEEN THE STATS - In other words, just because Carolina has the lowest passing yards allowed doesn’t mean they have the best pass defense. The Panthers are an awful team that has rarely had a lead in any of their games in 2009. Since Carolina has trailed for most of the season, their opponents have opted to run the ball more to kill the clock with a lead vs. pass the ball and catch up. Before you blindly trust the team rankings, take a quick look at whom these teams have played, and analyze whether your scheduled opponent will play a comparable level of defense this upcoming week given the strength of your WR3/RB3’s entire team.
6. OPPONENT’S DEFENSIVE INJURIES – While individual defensive players’ injuries don’t impact team play in the NFL as much as in college football, there are some important positions where key injuries can debilitate a defense’s ability to ‘hold that line.’ If Nnamdi Asomugha, an elite shutdown cornerback, is out for the Raiders with a hamstring injury, then that presents a significant upgrade for your WR if he happens to play the Raiders. If All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney is out with an injury for Indianapolis, then you should feel better about starting your QB2 against the Colts.
It is important to be able to tell which injuries will affect opponent’s playmaking abilities. Typically, any injury below the waist is considered debilitating to anyone besides a QB. If Asomugha has an elbow injury, but can still keep up with any receiver in the league, then this type of injury is less critical than if he has a knee/ankle/hamstring problem, which would obviously affect his running ability. If Matt Hasselbeck has a sprained throwing shoulder or elbow, then that would be considered a big upgrade for your team defense facing Seattle since Hasselbeck needs his throwing arm to accumulate stats and win games.
7. WEATHER – When I peruse the free agent pool for a kicker, I find myself gravitating towards kickers playing on a decent offense at home in domed stadiums. While kickers’ games are affected greatly by weather, the entire complexion of a game can also be dictated by precipitation, or lack thereof. Heavy rain tends to beget ball-control offense. In other words, don’t expect your QB to throw for 400 yards if it’s pouring at kickoff, but a RB rushing for 150 yards is not out of the question in rainy conditions. If rain merely hinders an offense, then heavy winds will all but kill an aerial attack as well as a kicking game. Nothing creates more dysfunction in an offense than winds of 30 MPH or more. If you’re torn between two players who to start, check the weather, and type in the ZIP code of the stadium where the game will be played (finding the ZIP code is easy if you type the stadium along with ‘address’ – for example, “Ralph Wilson Stadium address” for a Bills home game) into a search engine. If you see heavy rain/snow, significant chance of rain/snow, or gale winds in the forecast, then focus your attention on other starting options on your team.
8. CHECK TEAMMATES’ HEALTH – You own Eagles RB LeSean McCoy, and are contemplating starting him at home against the Giants in Week 8. Since McCoy is second string behind Brian Westbrook, Westbrook’s health dictates McCoy’s workload. Since it seems unlikely Westbrook will play Week 8 in a shortened week after suffering a concussion on Monday Night of Week 7, McCoy gets automatically upgraded to RB2/RB3 status without Westbrook taking touches away from McCoy. If Westbrook were healthy, McCoy wouldn’t be a recommended start as they would split carries. Another example is Jets WR Jerricho Cotchery. who has been out for a few weeks with a pulled hamstring. If you own Mark Sanchez or WR Braylon Edwards, Cotchery’s health will dictate whether Sanchez will have his favorite target to throw to, and whether Edwards will face double-team coverage. A healthy Cotchery means less defensive attention on Edwards, but also fewer looks Edwards’ way in favor of Cotchery. It’s one of those ‘two schools of thought’ or ‘double-edged sword’ conundrums. More attention means more coverage – which might or might not be a good thing, depending on the opponent’s quality of defense.
9. CHECK KICKOFF TIMES OF INJURED PLAYERS – If you’re wavering between two players to start where one is healthy, and the other is a game-time decision but has bigger upside, make sure the injured one isn’t playing a later game. If this is indeed the case, you’re taking a big gamble by passing on a sure thing if you have no other alternatives for the late game. For example, let’s say you own WRs Donnie Avery and Anquan Boldin. Avery is healthy, and his game starts on Sunday at 10am PST/1pm EST. On the other hand, Boldin doesn’t play until Sunday Night, and is a game-time decision. Unless you also own Boldin’s teammate, Steve Breaston, you’re probably safer starting Avery, even though his upside isn’t as lofty as Boldin’s. When lineups lock just before the early kickoff on Sunday morning, you lose your ability to decide on Avery as a starter if he’s not already in your lineup. If you have a premier talent that is a game-time decision in a later game, give yourself an additional late-game option by picking up his backup (in this case, Breaston) so that, in case Boldin ends up not playing on Sunday Night, you’re not screwed without any other starting options, and can start Breaston instead.
10. TEAMMATES IN REALITY, OPPONENTS IN FANTASY – When setting your lineup, it is often helpful to see if you have players starting that happen to play for the same team as your opponent’s starters. This may be crucial to your ability to hold a lead or come from behind in the later games. If you own Ravens WR Derrick Mason and your opponent is starting Baltimore QB Joe Flacco, and the game isn’t until Sunday Night or Monday Night, you’ll want to think twice before starting Mason if you’re projected to trail by the time the later game starts. Unless Flacco gets hurt, Mason’s production will essentially be tied to Flacco’s, making it difficult or virtually impossible to gain ground on your opponent (depending on your scoring system). Conversely, you can maintain a lead if you own Flacco and your opponent owns Mason. Unless there’s an unlikely end around or unusual Wildcat-esque play, if Mason scores, Flacco scores.
11. DOES YOUR PLAYER HAVE ANYONE SNAPPING AT HIS HEELS FOR PLAYING TIME/HIS STARTING JOB? - If you’re debating between starting Kerry Collins in a decent matchup or Kyle Orton against a tougher defense, job security is an important factor to take into account. If Orton lays an egg, he’ll still play four quarters if he’s healthy. However, Collins is two to three interceptions away from the end of his career as a starting quarterback, as the Titan’s brass has been calling for Vince Young to take over in a lost season for Tennessee. Collins may have had more past success as a quarterback, but that doesn’t mean that sunny days are ahead for the 36 year-old signal caller. You don’t want to have Collins in your lineup the week he loses his job.
12. CHECK GAME’S OVER/UNDER – Most people don’t understand that NFL wagering and fantasy football are practically kissing cousins, but they are. You can use information from one area and apply it to the other. Here’s an example: If you’re still torn between two options at your flex position, and are at a loss who to start based on weighing the above-listed criteria, check the over/under totals of the two games. For those of you who are unaware of this total, the ‘over/under’ is the combined total number of points oddsmakers predict will be scored in a particular game by both teams. For example, the total for the Eagles/Redskins game on Monday Night of Week 7 was 37.5. Until the last Washington garbage-time score in the final minutes of the game, the Eagles led the ‘Skins 27-10, making this an accurate over/under (the final score was 27-17, meaning the game went ‘over’). Totals tend to range between 33 points (when two good defenses play each other in bad weather) to 54 points (when two great offenses play each other in perfect weather or indoors). If you’re truly in a quandary about who to start, check the totals, as that should lend some indication to the predicted offensive pace, if not the score, of the game. If an over/under is 38 in a game your WR4 is starting and another total is 50.5 in a game your WR5 is playing, this could mean that your WR5 will be potentially involved in a shootout, creating more opportunity to score fantasy points.
13. MNF ACTION IN BACK POCKET – Sometimes, when I play an opponent I’m projected to lose to and I need to fill a roster hole for that week, I have been known to look at the Monday Night matchup, and grab an available player from those two teams. I can’t honestly back this up with statistical data that would support this theory, but it provides peace of mind if I’m trailing my opponent after the Sunday games end. I have been known to pick up the home team’s kicker if the matchup is right, and the weather isn’t bad. Often times I find myself trailing my opponent by a handful of points, and a decent day from my kicker (or tight end I grab off the waiver wire) will either facilitate a come-from behind victory, or help me to pad my lead in case my opponent has Monday Night action going as well.