Defense Wins Championships (Week 1)
Dylan Lerch is one of the pioneers of combining Las Vegas with fantasy football, and he has been writing his Defense Wins Championships column for four straight seasons. Each installment can be found at Empeopled.com every Tuesday morning. You can follow him on Twitter @dtlerch.
We’ve all been there before. It’s Sunday afternoon, and your fantasy team is getting destroyed. Your receivers are being double covered, your running backs are on the bench. And why on earth did you choose to start Andy Dalton? But thankfully, you have one last hope. With a big performance from your D/ST, you have a chance to eke out a narrow victory.
Sure enough, four quarters of football and not one – but two! – pick 6s later, you have a deceptively easy victory in the books.
Your opening week opponent is livid. “What on Earth? Tampa Bay? Who in their right mind would start Tampa Bay against me?”
“Yeah, I, uh… I just had a feeling about them,” you mutter, trying to stifle your grin.
“TAMPA BAY? FIRST OVERALL PICK IN THE DRAFT, TAMPA BAY?” His voice starts to break a little, and you’re not quite sure yet whether he’s going to start throwing things or crying.
You manage a shrug. “Guess I just got lucky?”
“You’re right you just got lucky. I can’t wait for our rematch later.”
If only he knew. His ESPN Fantasy Football magazine said he’d be safe playing the 49ers this week, since it was printed back in June. You though…you’re savvy. You keep up with Twitter, you know the relationships between Vegas and fantasy football, and most importantly, you know that Defense Wins Championships.
Brief Overview of the Method
When I started this column in 2012, it was at the forefront of mashing up Las Vegas sports books with fantasy football projection models. I come from a background of poker and sports betting, so concepts like EV (Expected Value) and betting against the spread have been second nature for years. However, if you’re not quite so familiar with it, here’s a brief overview.
Sports bookies (henceforth referred to as “Vegas” even though many of them are based overseas) try to predict the result of every NFL game. Most people have the misconception that every Vegas line is set to balance action – that is, the theory is that if the same number of people bet on each team, and the house takes a cut of each wager, the house cannot lose. This is absolutely true…if sports books were in the business of not losing money. Instead, I contend that sports books are in the business of making money, which means setting an accurate line. For most games during the NFL season, a sports book is very content taking uneven action on any of their positions, provided they can mitigate their risk against their entire portfolio.
More accurate lines mean more money. And everybody likes more money, right?
This takes us to the core assumption in our method: Vegas lines are taken as always accurate and true. Whether they are or are not, we can assume the deviations are not far enough so as to be unusable.
Further reading on the topic; Pot Equity and You, and also A Crash Course in Vegas Odds and FF. I highly recommend anybody interested or curious to check out the Defense Wins Championship archives, which can be found in my submission history on both Empeopled or on Reddit. If you have questions about the process or the methodology, chances are they’ve been answered before! And if not, you can always reach out to me on Twitter. For reference, all D/ST scoring for 2015 refers to MFL Standard.
Week 1 D/ST Scoring
(Team, expected points – tier)
- Carolina Panthers, 10.6 – 1 (high floor)
- Seattle Seahawks, 9.1 – 1
- Miami Dolphins, 8.6 – 1
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 8.2 – 1.5
- Houston Texans, 7.6 – 2
- New York Jets, 7.6 – 2 (high floor)
- Indianapolis Colts, 7.3 – 2 (high variance)
- Cleveland Browns, 6.9 – 2.5
- Minnesota Vikings, 6.7 – 2.5 (high floor)
- Green Bay Packers, 6.6 – 2.5 (high variance)
- San Francisco 49ers, 6.2 – 3
- Jacksonville Jaguars, 5.9 – 3
- Cincinnati Bengals, 5.8 – 3
- Kansas City Chiefs, 5.7 – 3
- New England Patriots, 5.5 -3.5 (high variance)
- San Diego Chargers, 5.3 – 3.5
Others in Tier 3.5: Arizona (5.2) and St. Louis (5.2). The remaining teams can all be considered safe to ignore for Week 1, and should not be started under any circumstances.
Tier 1/1.5: Carolina, Seattle, Miami, and Tampa Bay
These are all pretty self explanatory, except for perhaps Tampa Bay. The first three teams are all on the road, but they’re all very strong defenses against extremely sketchy offenses. Simply put, if you drafted any of these three (and all three should have been drafted in every league), you’re starting them with confidence.
Tampa Bay is the outlier here, but there’s a lot to like. First, they’re playing at home, and are favored by three in one of the lowest scoring profiles on the board. They also match up against a rookie QB’s first NFL game, and rookies – especially rookies on bad offenses – make great fades. The Buccaneers aren’t a sexy Week 1 pick, but they should be more than good enough to start.
Tier 2: Houston, NY Jets, Indianapolis
This is where the rankings start to get a little murkier, and where there are very glaring weaknesses to each option. However, the nature of the game dictates at least somebody starts these teams, and if it’s you, don’t panic. They’re still very good choices.
Personally, I like the Jets best. Their opponent (Cleveland) has the worst offense, they’re playing at home, and their opponent’s choice of QB is either bad (Josh McCown) or worse (Johnny Manziel). It’s also profiled as the lowest-scoring game on the board this week, with an over/under of just 40 points. Even with their missing players, I like the Jets a lot this year; strong pass rush, decent linebackers, and some pieces in the secondary that are truly elite.
That said, the Houston Texans are also at home, and the Chiefs aren’t going to run up the scoreboard either. They make an excellent alternative that profiles to the same expected score. Of this tier, the Colts are the ones to be leery of. They’ve got an excellent schedule to start the year, and their opponent this week (Buffalo) should not be a great offense, but they’re also on the road. Make no mistakes, the Colts are not a very good defensive unit this season, but they rate well enough to start this week and should for the next few in a row.
Tier 2.5: Cleveland, Minnesota, Green Bay
Yuck. Three road teams, two mediocre defenses, and Minnesota. If I had to be stuck in this tier, Minnesota is the only one I’d be excited about. They have a fine matchup next week, and they have the most tools of the three to be a top tier D/ST. They also profile to have a very good team for D/ST scoring; strong pass rush, decent linebackers, and a strong running game (which cuts down time of possession for their opponents, and thus leaves fewer scoring opportunities). Minnesota profiles as one of the safest plays in any tier, although their upside is going to be lower than the Tier 1/1.5 choices.
While I would be OK starting Cleveland or Green Bay in a deeper league, these are the exact type of teams I would be looking to swap out for Tampa Bay if they’re available. If not? Again, don’t sweat it, all three of these choices are good enough in 12-team leagues or deeper.
Tier 3/3.5: San Francisco, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Kansas City, New England, San Diego
Nothing too exciting here, but most of these should be started in most leagues. Kansas City profiles as the safest play on the tier, followed closely behind by Cincinnati, and then slightly farther behind by Jacksonville and San Francisco. The Jaguars actually had quite the pass rush last season, but they were limited in upside by their horrible offense.
And before anybody asks, yes, the New England projection accounts for suspensions. Using Vegas lines gives us an inherent insurance against injuries and suspensions, since a large part of our projection model is based on spreads and totals, and since Vegas is playing for much higher stakes than all of us combined, I think it’s fair to put our trust there.
If I were forced to stretch into the third tier, I would be looking at Kansas City, Cincinnati, and New England first (in approximately that order). It should be unnecessary to stretch as far as the other three, and best of luck to you if you find yourself with Jacksonville or San Diego, or the dumpster fire formerly known as the 49ers.
It’s Week 1 of 16. We have a long way to go, but we also have a very clear place to start.
Let’s get streaming, and let’s win some championships together!