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 five straight seasons. Each installment can be found at Empeopled.com every Tuesday morning. You can follow him on Twitter @dtlerch.
The notion of “predictions” versus “projections” is often lost in fantasy football. Ask yourself this: If you see a set of predictions for Week 5 and a set of projections for Week 5, do you treat them the exact same? More importantly, should you treat them the exact same?
The answer is a resounding “No!” to both.
Take a simple example: You have determined arbitrary WR Equanimeous St. Brown, after some intensive number crunching, has a 60% chance to score 10 fantasy points, a 20% chance to score 15 fantasy points, and a 20% chance to score 20 fantasy points. For simplicity’s sake, no other outcomes are possible. If I asked you to predict how many points he would score, you would tell me 10 points. After all, that’s the most likely outcome, and in a majority of trials, he would score exactly 10 points.
If I instead asked you to project his scoring expectation, you would have to dig a little bit deeper.
What To Expect When You’re Expecting Value
Expected Value (EV) is one of the most important concepts in probability, as far as fantasy football is concerned. In simple terms, EV is the weighted sum of all possible outcomes. In our above example, we would calculate EV as (0.6 * 10) + (0.2 * 15) + (0.2 * 20). We weigh each of the possible outcomes by the odds of each, so we get 60% of 10, 20% of 15, and 20% of 20 for a total of 13 points.
The projected score for Equanimeous St. Brown should be 13 points in this case, versus the predicted score of 10 points. In virtually every case with fantasy football, we should be working with projections, not predictions. In our example above, the prediction for Equanimeous only considers 60% of his entire range. The projection by definition accounts for 100% of his range. In Defense Wins Championships, we will always be ranking D/STs by their projected score and will never offer a prediction.
Week 5 D/STs followed the script fairly well. That’s not to say there were no surprises; the Buffalo Bills shut out the Patriots in New England, dealing the Patriots their first home shutout in 23 years. The Redskins were the top streaming option in Week 5 with a projected score of 11.7, and although they finished 11th overall, it was with 11 points. Life was not quite so kind to streamers who passed up the Redskins for either the Ravens or the Jets: they hauled in 3 points each in the face of bad matchups.
Overall though, correlations for Week 4 were relatively poor across the board. Our rank correlation was 0.25 while FantasyPros ECR came in at 0.26.
Week 5 D/ST Scoring (Team, expected points – tier) – all scoring assumes MFL Standard, from www.myfantasyleague.com.
- Minnesota Vikings, 11.9 – Tier 1 (vs HOU)
- Carolina Panthers, 10.2 – Tier 1 (vs TB)
- New England Patriots, 10.2 – Tier 1 (at CLE)
- Denver Broncos, 10.2 – Tier 1 (vs ATL)
- Philadelphia Eagles, 10.2 – Tier 1 (at DET)
- Los Angeles Rams, 9.4 – Tier 2 (vs BUF)
- Arizona Cardinals, 9.4 – Tier 2 (at SF)
- Green Bay Packers, 9.2 – Tier 2 (vs NYG)
- Buffalo Bills, 9.2 – Tier 2 (at LA)
- San Francisco 49ers, 8.6 – Tier 3 (vs ARI)
- Baltimore Ravens, 8.6 – Tier 3 (vs WAS)
- Miami Dolphins, 8.3 – Tier 3 (vs TEN)
- Washington Redskins, 7.8 – Tier 4 (at BAL)
- Oakland Raiders, 7.7 – Tier 4 (vs SD)
- Cincinnati Bengals, 7.6 – Tier 4 (at DAL)
- Indianapolis Colts, 7.6 – Tier 4 (vs CHI)
Also on tier 4 this week are Pittsburgh (7.5), Dallas (7.5) and Houston (7.4)
On bye this week are Seattle, New Orleans, Jacksonville, and Kansas City. New Orleans and Jacksonville should be virtually 100% unowned but can be dropped if not. Seahawks owners will probably regret dropping them eventually, but they are facing games vs Atlanta, at Arizona, and then at New Orleans after the bye. That is tough to justify a hold. Likewise with Kansas City: their own murderer’s row is at Oakland, vs New Orleans, then at Indianapolis. Both Seattle and KC are probably begrudging drops, but I recognize that may be a tough move to stomach.
Tier 1 – Minnesota, Carolina, New England, Denver, Philadelphia
Lock in the Vikings every week from here on out, until proven otherwise. Home games are automatically tier 1 going forward, and road games will probably be tier 1 or tier 2 depending on the opponent. There’s not much else to say: even in a mediocre performance in Week 4, they still put up 8 points in MFL Standard scoring, and held the Giants to just 10 points on the scoreboard.
Carolina is a tougher sell. Their cornerbacks have been exposed as a liability, and their pass rush has not picked up the slack yet. Matt Ryan put up 500 yards on them! That said, this is still a no brainer start in Week 5 against Tampa Bay. First, the Panthers are playing in Charlotte. Remember our original checklist: A good defense, favored and playing at home, against a bad or turnover-prone offense. This game checks every one of those boxes! After this week the Panthers are on the road against the Saints, then on bye, then at home vs the Cardinals, so this may be the last week in a while where they rate highly. The Buccaneers are the fourth-most generous offense to opposing D/STs this year, and have conceded three scores of 13 or higher.
The Patriots got blown out on Sunday. The Patriots probably won’t get blown out again this Sunday. Do not overthink this one: they’re playing the Browns, who have allowed an average of 10 points per game to opposing D/STs. They’re going to be getting Tom Brady back, which should all but ensure that their game script will flip from this past weekend. Everything points toward the Patriots as an automatic start this weekend, and they absolutely are. In 25% of leagues the Patriots are available: if your league is one of them, you should probably change that.
Denver has hardly missed a step from last year, averaging more than 15 points per game through 4 weeks this season. That’s almost 3 points per game more than they tallied last season! At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if you have the Broncos D/ST, do not overthink things. Lock them in just as you would the Vikings.
The interesting spot of the top tier this week belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles D/ST. Being on bye this past week, the Eagles are available in almost 60% of leagues. By the end of the waiver period, their ownership should start to approach 100%. Their upcoming stretch of games features four of five games on the road, but otherwise, the Eagles are a very good defense. Their matchups will feature enough turnover-prone and enough weaker opponents to justify a start more often than not. For this week, they get a Lions team that has been very boom or bust this year. They allowed very solid D/ST scores to both Tennessee and Chicago but punished the Packers and Colts. The Eagles might have a lower floor than is typical of a tier 1 D/ST, but their overall expectation is very high. They should be at the top of everybody’s list for streaming, and may even allow owners to ascend from streaming to a plug-and-play option if things break right.
Tier 2 – Los Angeles, Arizona, Green Bay, Buffalo
The Rams have been one of the tougher teams in the league to judge through 4 weeks. At times their offense looks putrid; other times, it looks just plain bad. But their defense has never been their weakness. They’re strong up the middle, they’re strong on the edges, and the weaknesses in their secondary can be masked at times by their strengths elsewhere. Before the season started, they looked like one of the top 8 D/STs in the league.
Enter Case Keenum. Or is it Jeff Fisher? Or maybe their horrible offensive line? Or the fact that their owner is horrible? Either way, the quarterback of this team is quite possibly the worst QB in the NFL, and he exists as an anchor for the rest of the team… and yet somehow, the Rams are 3-1 and have beaten both of the NFC preseason favorites. Week 4 was supposed to be a blowout loss against a very good Cardinals team; instead, it was a resounding LA win. This week, the Rams play host to the Buffalo Bills in one of their few remaining games this season where they should have a positive game script for their D/ST. They are home favorites in a low-scoring game, and so they can be safely streamed in Week 5. Like the Eagles, the Rams offer a potential respite from streaming if they continue to play above their heads in bad matchups. Do not count on it, but do recognize that it is part of their range now. The Rams are available in almost 70% of leagues and should be among the second group of targets (behind Philadelphia and New England) for streamers.
The Cardinals are a tough team to back this week. They play on Thursday and will likely be without Carson Palmer, and this team just has not looked right this year even with him. That said, they get a great matchup against a 49ers team that is not quite as good as they have shown on the scoreboard, and have been fairly generous to begin with. If nothing else, they are exploitable – and most importantly, the Cardinals are probably too good to drop. Owners are stuck along for the ride even if they’ve yet to truly disappoint.
The Pack is back, and they’ll be hunting for sacks against a Giants team that has already conceded four scores between 8 and 12 points. For those not keeping track at home, that’s every week this season. As big home favorites this week, Green Bay should pick up where they left off in Week 3. They’re a very good D/ST for people who missed out on a premier option but are not quite comfortable with streaming, or play in a league where there are multiple streamers. They still should be Vegas favorites in each remaining game this season, and thus should never be a bad start. While they probably lack the top tier upside of some of the other options that may be out there, they are a very strong backup plan otherwise. 60% of leagues kept the Packers through their bye. I would target them at the same level as Los Angeles and Buffalo, depending on your streaming preferences – they are probably not going to single-handedly win you a matchup in any given week, but the Packers are very unlikely to sink you either.
The final team on the tier is the Buffalo Bills. After clearing the Cardinals and Patriots to the tune of 40 (!) total D/ST points, the Bills are ready for their reward: games against the Rams, the 49ers, and then the Dolphins over their next three. The Defense Wins Championships algorithm does not side with the Bills as much as they probably look on paper, but they match up very well against Los Angeles. They are available in nearly 65% of leagues but should be started in nearly all of them in Week 5.
Tier 3 and below
Between Philadelphia, New England, Los Angeles, Buffalo, Green Bay, and the usual plug-and-play options at the top of the rankings, it should be easy to avoid dipping into these ranks for the majority of teams in most leagues (especially since both the Packers and Eagles are coming off a bye week). However, there are some options down here that stand out.
San Francisco: They get Drew Stanton on short rest and short notice. While Stanton might be one of the better backup QBs in the league, he’s still a backup QB. He threw 2 interceptions in just 11 pass attempts after coming in for Palmer. The 49ers D/ST is aggressively mediocre, if not bad, and they just lost Navorro Bowman for the year; I would not expect great things here, but if you are looking at these tiers, you don’t have the luxury of expecting great things anyway.
Baltimore: They looked worse than they really are in Week 4 due to a bad matchup. While they ranked fairly well with the algorithm, we did recommend caution against them because Oakland is so treacherous for D/STs. This week is Washington, who have looked great at times and horrible at times offensively. However, this week is similar to last, in that the Ravens show up better here than they should on Sunday. You can stay away once again.
Cincinnati: Road games at Dallas and then at New England are enough to wave goodbye to the Bengals. Circle back for them in Week 7 if you can for the Browns, but do not be too sad to see them go. Last week was the first time all year that they have looked reasonable.
Pittsburgh: The opposite of Baltimore, in that the Steelers should be better on Sunday than they are here in the rankings. The matchup is not great but it’s not bad, and it’s at home. When they are clicking, the Steelers are on another level from just about the entire league, evidenced by garbage time beginning in the first quarter Sunday night. I would treat the Steelers as a decent tier 3 team rather than an average tier 4.
Houston: No J.J. Watt means they are strictly in the ranks of the streamers. Start them at home and against bad offenses, and perhaps nowhere else. This is not one of those weeks, so they can be safely dropped.
That does it for Week 5 – as always, thank you for slogging through this with me. Best of luck to everybody this week!