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DFS Primer: Wild Card Edition (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jan 7, 2021

Diontae Johnson is one of the best cash-game plays on the wild card slate

I think many of us DFS players take it for granted that everyone knows or understands the lingo “cash games” or “GPPs.” With season-long fantasy football in the rear-view mirror, many are left watching football without rooting interest. Because of that, I wanted to highlight a few of the things you should know about DFS contests.

Cash games: These are formats where if you finish in the top half of contestants, you win money. These are found under 50/50s, Double Ups, and Head-to-Head contests. The goal in these formats to take on as little risk as possible. If there are 100 entries, you just need to finish inside the top-50. You will not win more money by finishing No. 1 than you do by finishing at No. 49.

GPPs (Guaranteed Prize Pools): This format can be anywhere from a couple hundred entries to a 100-plus thousand entries. These are also called tournaments where your goal should be to place as high as possible. These contests have a payout that’s heavily weighted to those who finish inside the top 20 percent, so you need to take on some risks. You also need to factor in ownership because if you only roster heavily-owned players, it’s virtually impossible that you separate yourself from the pack to win the tournament (or at least come close). The more entries there are in the tournament, the more risk you need to take.

Those are the general terms you should understand before playing DFS. If this is your first time playing, I suggest starting with cash games, as you just want to get your feet wet and build lineups. Remember, this is not the format to play someone because you “have a gut feeling” about a player (save that for tournaments). This is the format where you want to select players who come with the smallest amount of risk. Let’s get into my favorite cash-game players for this weekend’s slate.

Quarterbacks

Lamar Jackson (BAL) at TEN – $7,800
Anyone who’s been paying attention here knows the reason the Titans aren’t expected to go far in the playoffs, and it has nothing to do with their offense. The only teams who allowed more fantasy points per play than the Titans were the Lions, Falcons, and Texans… all teams looking for new head coaches. Meanwhile, Jackson has been on a hot streak, finishing with at least 21.3 fantasy points in six of his last seven games, including each of his last five. When paying up at quarterback, you cannot afford to miss, and Jackson offers a rock-solid floor, while we know his ceiling. The lone concern is that Jackson has played two games against this Mike Vrabel defense, and in those two games, he’s thrown for 541 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions, while rushing for 194 yards. Still, that’s enough for 46.0 fantasy points, which is what makes him so unbelievably safe. If you’re paying up, it’s him or Josh Allen.

Josh Allen (BUF) vs IND – $7,500
As mentioned in Jackson’s notes, you cannot afford to miss when paying up for quarterbacks because it limits you with the skill-position players you’re able to fit on your roster. Allen has been a game-breaker lately, racking up 34-plus DraftKings points in three of his last five games. He also hasn’t scored fewer than 17.5 points since way back in Week 8, giving you the floor needed when paying up. The matchup with the Colts was a poor one to start the year but hasn’t really been that over the second half of the season. Since the start of Week 9, there’s been just one quarterback who failed to finish with at least 18.6 fantasy points against them, which included Mike Glennon in Week 17. The reason Allen makes a ton of sense is because he’s their only avenue to points. The running backs have combined for just 21.5 touches per game (5th-fewest) and 14.3 PPR points per game (4th-fewest). On top of that, the Colts run defense is among the best in the league. I’m a bit torn on which quarterback to choose right now, but I’m leaning towards the discount with Allen.

Ben Roethlisberger (PIT) vs CLE – $6,100
If you’re looking for a value quarterback in order to fit some higher-priced running backs and wide receivers in your lineup, Roethlisberger is the one I’d lean towards. The Steelers live and die by the pass this year, and the Browns matchup just happens to favor the passing game. There have been just three running backs who’ve topped 66 yards on the ground against the Browns, while there have been five quarterbacks who’ve thrown for at least 315 yards, including two who threw for 400-plus yards. These two teams met back in Week 6 when the Steelers were still able to run the ball, but a lot has changed since that game where James Conner rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown. The Steelers won that game 38-7 while Roethlisberger threw the ball just 22 times. In a must-win game last week, the Browns secondary allowed Mason Rudolph to throw for 315 yards and two touchdowns.

Running Backs

Derrick Henry (TEN) vs BAL – $9,200
You have to know the risk of fading Henry in cash game lineups, because if he goes off, you’re not making it into the money. This is the time of year where the Titans allow him to shine, as he’s racked up at least 23 carries in six of the last seven games. Included in that set of games was one against the Ravens where he ran the ball 28 times for 133 yards and a touchdown. Going back to last year’s playoffs, Henry tagged this defense for 195 yards on 30 carries. If there’s one player who’s a lock for 20 touches at the running back position this week, it’s him. The Ravens have an intimidating defense overall, but the 4.48 yards per carry they’ve allowed to running backs is higher than the league average of 4.38 yards per carry. The reason they’re not viewed as a pushover run defense is because they’ve allowed a rushing touchdown just once every 45.3 carries, which is the second-largest number in the league. You pay for touches at the running back position, and Henry is about as safe as they come for those.

Jonathan Taylor (TEN) at BUF – $7,900
Everyone knows Taylor has been on a tear lately, right? In a must-win game for them last week, the Colts had Taylor play a season-high 82.1 percent of the snaps (hadn’t been over 70 percent before that game). He rewarded them with the league’s best rushing performance of the season. His 253 yards barely edged out Derrick Henry‘s 250 yards in Week 17, while there were no other performances over 215 yards. The Bills have a solid defense, though the area of weakness is surely on the ground, as they’ve allowed 57 rushing touchdowns to running backs in the 64 games they’ve played under Sean McDermott. On the year, they’ve allowed the 12th-most fantasy points per touch to running backs, which much of stems from touchdowns, as the one they allow every 24.5 carries was more often than all but seven other teams. Taylor has at least 74 rushing yards in six straight games, while scoring seven touchdowns over the last four games. Think of him as the cheaper version of Derrick Henry on this slate.

David Montgomery (CHI) at NO – $6,900
It’s really tough to find much value on this slate at running back, as all the obvious plays are priced up. I’ve spent the entire year avoiding running backs against the Saints in DFS, but on a smaller slate, you can’t avoid a running back who’s getting 90 percent of his team’s running back touches. You’d have to go all the way back to Week 9 to find the last time Montgomery finished with fewer than 20 DraftKings points. Let me be clear: I don’t think he gets to 20 DraftKings points in this matchup. However, the last time these two teams met, Montgomery carried the ball 21 times for 89 yards while catching two passes for 16 yards. That was with Nick Foles under center, so things have changed a bit. The Bears have averaged 28.3 points per game with Mitch Trubisky under center, while averaging 16.7 points per game with Foles. We also saw Trubisky playing check-down football last week while trying to protect the football last week, targeting Montgomery nine times. They may be catching the Saints defense at the right time, too, as they’ve allowed at least one running back who totaled at least 14.6 PPR points in three of the last four games, while they’d allowed just two such performances over their first 12 games. You’re paying for the touches with Montgomery, as well as all the goal-line touches as the team’s primary goal-line back. The Bears are the clear-cut underdogs in this game, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Montgomery, who’s seen all but one of the Bears’ running back targets since the start of Week 12.

J.D. McKissic (WAS) vs TB – $4,900
This is the clear-cut bargain bin play at running back this week. McKissic isn’t a full-time player, but his role in this offense is dictated on gamescript. The Bucs are currently 8.5-point favorites, which suggests Washington will be in a negative gamescript. Here are the splits with McKissic in wins and losses:

Game Result RuAtt RuYds RuTD Tgts Rec RecYds RecTD PPR PPG
Wins 4.7 22.6 0.00 5.0 3.6 26.0 0.00 8.43
Losses 5.8 23.0 0.11 8.3 6.1 45.2 0.22 14.93

 

We did see Antonio Gibson flash at times, but it’s also worth noting that his splits are the exact opposite of McKissic. If you’re expecting Washington to win, McKissic wouldn’t be the best play, but that doesn’t seem likely. On top of that, the Bucs have allowed the fewest fantasy points on the ground to running backs (where McKissic doesn’t generate many points), allowing just 141.2 fantasy points all year, while no other team was below 161.0 fantasy points. Through the air, however, they allowed the fifth-most fantasy points to running backs. If you are okay accepting a little more gamescript risk, McKissic looks like a solid value.

Comes with risk but is underpriced: Cam Akers (LAR) at SEA – $5,100

Wide Receivers

Stefon Diggs (BUF) vs IND – $7,700
Diggs has transformed into an elite fantasy receiver while Josh Allen has been on his hot streak. Did you know he’s caught at least six passes in 15-of-16 games this year? In a PPR format, that’s highly valuable. Now you’re mixing that with a Colts secondary that has trended in the wrong direction as the season has gone on. You probably think of them as a good one, right? Would it make you feel better to know they’ve allowed 10 different wide receivers to score 15-plus PPR points against them over the last seven games, including seven of them who hit 19.8 or more PPR points? They’ve allowed 8.81 yards per target to wide receivers on the season (10th-most), so as long as the volume is there, receivers have produced. Diggs hasn’t seen fewer than eight targets since way back in Week 4, so it’s fair to say he’ll be just fine in that department. With no Davante Adams on the slate, Diggs should be considered the top receiver.

Allen Robinson (CHI) at NO – $6,600
The last time we saw Robinson on the field, it wasn’t a pretty sight as he finished with just two catches for 37 yards. While that’s not great, it also suppressed his price from the $7,700 it was to the $6,600 it is now, so you’re getting a discount for it. That was just the second time all year Robinson didn’t hit double-digit PPR points, so it’s not as if this is a common occurrence. Robinson has played against this Saints defense twice over the last 14 months and his totals in those games were 6/87/1 and 10/87/1, so it’s not as if they shut him down. Robinson’s floor in this game should be around eight targets. He lines up on the left side of the formation more than anywhere else, which means he’ll draw Marshon Lattimore, who hasn’t quite been the same this year, allowing a 103.3 QB Rating in his coverage, though he did get better as the year went on. Still, Janoris Jenkins (Darnell Mooney‘s primary matchup) has been much better. Prior to Robinson’s bust against the Packers last week, he’d posted at least 70 yards in 11 of his last 13 games, including each of his last five. When you combine that with his target floor and projected gamescript, Robinson should deliver solid value at his discounted price.

Diontae Johnson (PIT) vs CLE – $6,200
If you read The Primer throughout the year, I explained why the Steelers couldn’t afford to bench Johnson for too long regarding his drop issues. There’s no other receiver on the team who can play the role he does, which is Ben Roethlisberger‘s safety valve who’s continually open. They don’t use him in a field stretching role very often, and that’s fine for DFS purposes, specifically on DraftKings where those receptions matter a ton. Johnson has caught at least six passes in seven of the last eight games with Roethlisberger under center, while delivering 12.6 or more PPR points in eight of the last nine games. In the 12 full games that Johnson played with Roethlisberger (without leaving extremely early to injury), he saw at least 10 targets in 10 of those games. That’s practically unheard of for a receiver who costs just $6,200. Based on the opponents they’ve played, receivers have averaged 10.5 percent more PPR points against the Browns than their season-long average, which makes this the sixth-best schedule-adjusted matchup. They’re also going to be without one of their starting cornerbacks (Kevin Johnson), which certainly doesn’t hurt. You should have Johnson in your cash game lineups.

Marquise Brown (BAL) at TEN – $5,400
I don’t think you should wipe Brown out of cash game consideration because of his price, but you should know that his recent hot streak has been pretty touchdown-heavy. Here are his yardage totals over the last six games where he was the No. 14 wide receiver in fantasy: 85-39-50-98-25-41. We’ll obviously take the 85- and 98-yard performances, but without them, we’re relying on touchdowns to hit value. We talked a lot about guys like Diggs, Robinson, and Johnson hitting six-plus receptions. Well, Brown hasn’t topped six receptions all year and he only hit that number twice. However, if there’s a game where we may want to expect more out of him, it might be this one. The Titans allowed 268 receptions to wide receivers alone in 2020, which amounts to 16.8 per game, which was the second-most in the NFL. In their 16 games played, 23 wide receivers were able to rack up five-plus receptions. This is a good time to tell you Brown accounts for 45.2 percent of the Ravens’ wide receiver targets, 42.3 percent of their receptions, 44.5 percent of their yards, and 47.1 percent of their touchdowns. If Jackson is posting numbers through the air, Brown is highly likely to be the primary beneficiary. Brown is not your prototypical cash-game receiver, but on a smaller slate, he deserves consideration.

Corey Davis (TEN) vs BAL – $4,800
I really do feel like this is bait. Davis at $4,800 is disrespectful to what he was able to accomplish this year, finishing with double-digit PPR points in 10-of-14 games. The reason you should have a bit of concern is due to three of those games where he didn’t coming in Weeks 14, 16, and 17. You also have to worry about the Ravens secondary, who allowed the ninth-fewest fantasy points to wide receivers this year. Some will point to Davis finishing with 5/113/0 against them in Week 11, but you can also point to the one catch for three yards he had against them in the playoffs last year. Still, his price is extremely low, making him tempting to play. It also helps that starting cornerback Jimmy Smith has been ruled out for this game, as he’s been a shut-down cornerback all year. I’d imagine he’ll be heavily owned in cash games, but if you have an extra couple hundred bucks for your roster, I’d try to find a way to get to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Marquise Brown. But again, if you do roster him and he busts, it probably won’t hurt you too bad because he’s going to have high ownership.

Desperation only: Zach Pascal (IND) at BUF – $3,700
I can’t tell you how many times I wrote then deleted Pascal’s name from this list. The reason he’s in here is for those who are spending up at other positions and need a true value play. If you’re paying up for others, you’d better be sure, as Pascal is far from a sure thing. However, since Marcus Johnson has been out of the picture, Pascal has played 87, 88, and 84 percent of the Colts snaps over the last three weeks. During that time, he’s seen 16 targets and turned them into 10 receptions for 184 yards and three touchdowns. The Bills have Tre’Davious White and Josh Norman on the perimeter, who’ve played extremely well as of late, and they’ll be covering T.Y. Hilton and Michael Pittman throughout the day. Meanwhile, Pascal will see the most of Taron Johnson in the slot, who’s allowed 55-of-76 passing for 562 yards in his coverage.

Comes with a little risk but probably worth it: Michael Thomas (NO) vs CHI – $6,400

Tight Ends

Mark Andrews (BAL) at TEN – $5,200
If you have the funds available, Andrews is the only real obvious play at tight end on the slate. The issue is that you’re forced to pay down at running back and/or wide receiver in order to fit him in. Despite seeing the sixth-fewest targets to tight ends, the Titans allowed the 13th-most fantasy points to them this year. The 75.2 percent completion-rate ranked as the highest in the league, while the 8.32 yards and 2.06 PPR points per target ranked as the third-highest marks. When these two teams met back in Week 11, Andrews totaled five catches for 96 yards and a touchdown on seven targets. He was one of six tight ends who totaled at least five receptions against the Titans this year. If you can afford Andrews, he’s the best tight end available this weekend, and the matchup doesn’t do anything to deter you away from him.

Jonnu Smith (TEN) vs BAL – $3,200
It’s a crap shoot at tight end, which has been the case for most of the 2020 NFL season. Unless you pay up for Andrews, you’re not guaranteed much of anything, so it makes sense to look for the tight end who’s got the best chance to score. The total on the Ravens/Titans game is 54.5, which is head-and-shoulders above any other game on this slate, and if there’s one position the Ravens struggle with, it’s tight ends. Here’s their defensive ranks against each position: QBs 9th, RBs 12th, WRs 9th, TEs 17th. Ok, so they don’t “struggle” with tight ends, but they’re essentially average against them. There were eight tight ends who were able to hit 10.3 or more PPR points against them this year, including Smith himself when he caught four passes for 20 yards and a touchdown back in Week 11. Prior to their Week 17 game, Smith had seen 12 targets in Weeks 15-16, which is more in line with what he saw earlier in the year when he was a tight end who cost you $4,700-$5,200 on DraftKings. If you were putting odds on the tight end most likely to score on this slate, Smith would be right up there behind Andrews.

If you need to save a couple hundred more: Jack Doyle (IND) at BUF – $2,900

D/ST

Washington Football Team vs TB – $2,400
This one is clear as day in cash. You never want to spend up on your D/ST in cash games because it’s the least predictable position in your lineup. Fortunately, DraftKings made it easy and gave us Washington at just $2,400. They are a defense that generates tons of pressure, as evidenced by their three-plus sacks in seven of the last 10 games they’ve played, including at least four sacks in six of them. Because of that pressure, they’ve generated 14 turnovers in their last seven games. Now, when you combine that with Tom Brady‘s struggles under pressure, you have what could be the recipe for success. While throwing from a clean pocket, Brady boasts a 115.1 QB Rating, which ranks as the eighth-best mark in the league. While under pressure, he has posted just a 54.5 QB Rating, which ranks as the 28th-best mark in football, right behind Daniel Jones and Sam Darnold. At their discounted price, Washington is the cash game defense you should probably be using.

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