Managing weekly fantasy football salary caps

Managing a Salary Cap in Weekly Fantasy Football

In my analysis of the similarities and differences between season-long and weekly fantasy football, I noted that perhaps the most obvious way in which weekly fantasy football is unique is the implementation of a salary cap; on DraftKings, each player has a salary, and you have a $50,000 cap you can use to field a lineup of 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 FLEX, and 1 D.

Everyone wants to use Peyton Manning, but he also costs more money than any other player. If you want to play Manning in Week 1, you’ll need to use 20.2 percent of your salary cap ($10,100). That’s a hefty price to pay, and it can be prohibitive when filling out the rest of your lineup.

Thus, your goal in weekly fantasy football isn’t simply to identify the players who will score the most points (as you do in season-long leagues), but rather those who will score the most points relative to their cost. All other things equal, you want to use the players who represent the best combination of cost and expected production. When you hear weekly fantasy football players talk about value, that’s what they mean—production minus cost.

In addition to value, here are three other important components of navigating a weekly fantasy football salary cap.

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Opportunity Cost

When you’re making your season-long fantasy football decisions, you’re generally asking yourself “What can this player give me?” Your main concern is just scoring the most points with the lineup you have. In weekly fantasy football, the question you need to ask yourself is a negative one: “What will I lose if I select this player?” With every choice, you’re giving up something else.

Returning to the Manning example, the quarterback is clearly an awesome Week 1 play in terms expected points—you’d never sit him in a traditional league—but he also comes with a high cost. Namely, using Manning means you must forfeit a high percentage of your salary cap that could have been used elsewhere—you’re forgoing the opportunity to upgrade other positions.

This concept is fundamentally related to the idea of scarcity. Jimmy Graham is valuable because he’s a scarce resource at his position. He’s scarce because there aren’t too many other comparable players—a lack of opportunities to recreate his production.

Arbitrage Situations

If we’re thinking about each lineup decision in terms of the opportunity cost, it follows that we should be seeking the cheapest possible production that we can get. When we can combine bulk points with a low opportunity cost, that’s ideal.

Thus, the second question you should be asking yourself when selecting players on DraftKings is “Can I reproduce these projected points at a cheaper cost?” If a wide receiver who you think will score 15 points is good, one who will score 15 points with a price tag that’s $500 cheaper is even better.

The best way to find these arbitrage situations is to think about players with as much of an “outside-the-box” mindset as you can. You need to keep up with player news and understand league-wide trends, of course, but most users are going to remain up-to-date on this information as well. We all hear the same news and often have comparable player preferences, so you should think about where your inclinations might be wrong—and how you can get creative to replace Player X’s production at a cheaper cost.

Making Something Out of Nothing

One of the aspects of player selection that’s unique to weekly fantasy football is selecting from the entire universe of players; all quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and defenses are in play every week.

That affords you the opportunity to create “symbiotic” relationships within your lineup, pairing players in such a way that their production is strongly correlated. When you pick your starters in a season-long league, you might be able to pair a quarterback with his receiver, but only if you drafted both players. In weekly fantasy football, you can work to create those relationships each and every week.

Your focus should be either increasing safety or upside—depending on the league type—while working within the confines of the salary cap. In this way, you’re trying to “make something out of nothing”—or get a higher level of production “for free,” so to speak.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you’re in a big DraftKings tournament with a lot of users and you want to create a lineup with a really high ceiling so that you have a shot to win. You’ve decided to start Drew Brees, but you’re unsure if you want to pair him with Marques Colston or Roddy White, both of whom cost $5,900 in Week 1. Who’s the right choice?

Assuming you have the receivers projected near one another, the right choice is Colston. His play is dependent on that of Brees such that the duo is a more high-risk/high-reward option than a Brees/White pairing. You’re manufacturing a higher ceiling, despite the exact same cost and the exact same individual projections, by pairing players in an optimal fashion.

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