Fantasy Football Cheat Code: How to maximize D/ST value
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By the end of your draft, defense/special teams is an afterthought. It’s almost regarded as a throw-away pick by most owners. After all, half the league is going to be streaming the position (dropping their D/ST for one in a better matchup every week). The other half should be streaming too, of course, as the top streaming defense averages more points by season’s end than the #1 D/ST every year. So most smart fantasy owners wait until the last (or second to last if your league uses volatility kickers) to select their defense. They’ll then ride the Browns for two weeks against Tennessee and the Jets before dropping them for the Bengals (vs the Bills) in Week 3. You’ve got an advantage over your league if you go that route, but there is actually more for the taking if you want it.
First of all, you don’t have to draft a defense. As I explained in my most recent Cheat Code article (Don’t Draft a Kicker), a kicker’s value is actually only derived from his Week 1 matchup. Even the best drafted kickers have just a 1 or 2 point advantage over the replacement level player (what’s available on the waiver wire). The same is true for the average starting D/ST but it’s closer to 3 points, and like the Browns and Cowboys, they are worth using two and sometimes three consecutive weeks before you should dump them. Even a team like the Bears won’t score more than the top streaming defenses over the course of a full season and it’s especially scary when you consider that over the past six seasons, the previous year’s #1 D/ST has finished #20, #14, #12, #5, #14 and #16 the following season. In my leagues, I’m not drafting a defense this year either. I’ll pick mine (the Cowboys vs NYG, @ WAS, vs MIA) up an hour before Week 1 kickoff. Instead, I’ll grab any number of high-upside backup running backs in case the starter is injured or holds out or is suspended or quits the NFL because they won’t let him wear a t-shirt. You can check the math on this one and my favorite targets in the kickers piece.
That isn’t the main piece of strategy here, however, just a starting place. Sure, I can double my expected value by taking a chance at finding the next James Conner or Kareem Hunt, but then we’ve got another 15 weeks of fantasy football to further maximize our value at the D/ST position. As I mentioned, most smart owners will stream the position so after the Bengals take on Josh Allen in Week 3, they’ll turn to Denver at home against the Jags in Week 4 then perhaps the Cowboys against DeShone Kizer in Week 5, as all kinds of random events will take place that impact the top streamers. You’ll secure an average of nearly 1 additional fantasy point per week at the position over the dude who reached a round for the Jags D/ST (ADP #3). That doesn’t factor in the opportunity cost of spending FAAB on that top streamer every week though, and if you aren’t spending the FAAB, you are settling for the 2nd, or more likely, 4th best streaming D/ST. That’s still better than the dork who is riding out the Ravens D/ST all season even against the Chiefs in Week 3 and Steelers in Week 5, but you are now below average in your league at the position. What if I said you could have the #1 average D/ST producers in your league without spending any FAAB or draft picks?
Math Behind the Cheat Code
There is a principal in fantasy sports, and frankly, life in general, that everyone should operate under. It’s called opportunity cost and what it means is that if you are spending your FAAB on D/STs, you are trading that for what you could have otherwise spent your FAAB on. If you are getting 16 fantasy points above replacement on $6 FAAB a week (100% of your FAAB over a full season), that’s not the worst use of your funds, but it’s sub-optimal for sure. In fact, that means you missed out on Phillip Lindsay last year (52 points above replacement), Tyler Boyd (29 points above replacement) and many others. In fact, some owners grabbed Lindsay, Boyd, Marlon Mack and Tarik Cohen with their FAAB! Not feeling so good about that 16 FAAB above replacement your D/ST brought you anymore, are you?
Although hindsight would tell you differently, the best way to spend your FAAB is not to splurge 20% here on Lindsay and 20% here on Boyd. If you nailed those two, congrats on your playoff appearance, but it usually doesn’t work that way. Those two had near-identical waiver wire profiles to Peyton Barber, Josh Adams, Josh Reynolds and Marques Valdes-Scantling. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you those additions didn’t work out. In fact, more often than not, those lightning in a bottle cases turn out to be just chasing last week’s snaps, volume and fantasy points. Instead, you should be saving up your FAAB for one or two huge purchases.
Every single year five to ten starting running backs suffer a major injury. With those rates, one to three are going to be in strong running offenses. For instance, in the last few years, Kareem Hunt, James Conner and Alvin Kamara have all been league winners. They all fell into workhorse roles in great offenses in the preseason but last year, but several others happened during the season too. Nick Chubb was the top pickup in 2019. It was an absolute gimme as he was certain to step into a workhorse role the moment Carlos Hyde was dealt. Then Kareem Hunt was suspended indefinitely and it was Damien Williams time. Every single year those type of pickups pop up and every single year they pay off. Save your FAAB for those league winners instead of trying to squeeze an extra fantasy point out of your D/ST every week.
“But wait, you said I could have the #1 D/ST and not spend any FAAB.” Right. You can still get the top streamers. You just have to pick them up a week in advance. I can already tell you the Titans will be a top 5 D/ST in Week 5 because they take on the Bills at home. It’s easy. So pick them up in Week 4 for free rather than spending $8 FAAB on them in Week 5. Now, there is an opportunity cost with this one too. It’s sacrificing the last roster spot on your bench, as you’ll have to roster two D/STs almost the whole year (sometimes you’ll have a D/ST with two or three straight hot matchups like DAL in Weeks 1, 2 and 3). That final bench spot is generally occupied by either a WR6 like Mohamed Sanu (barely above replacement level) or an upside RB7 like Ryquell Armstead. As I explained in the Don’t Draft a Kicker article, some like Armstead has an expected value over the course of 1,000 simulations of nearly 5 fantasy points above replacement. That is quite good and far better than a backup QB or TE as many people carry. But compare those 5 fantasy points to the FOURTY you can get by owning the top D/ST streamer every week. It isn’t even close. Advanced D/ST streaming is the best way to use that final roster spot. Here is how I’d plan to proceed at the position:
The Ideal D/ST timeline
- Draft night: Forgo drafting a D/ST and instead add Chase Edmonds in the last round in case anything happens to David Johnson in the preseason
- Week 1: pickup Dallas right before kickoff and ride them for 3 weeks
- Week 3: Use Dallas again, but for week 4, pickup Denver who plays the Jags in Week 4
- Week 4: Use Denver, drop Dallas and pickup the Titans who welcome Buffalo to Nashville in Week 5
- Week 5: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Nathan Peterman could be starting for the Raiders by then if Derek Carr suffers an injury. Reassess the league at that point and grab the best available Week 6 streamer a week early then repeat the rest of the year.