How much do fantasy football quarterback matchups matter?
Jonathan Bales is the author of the popular book “Fantasy Football for Smart People.” You can find daily fantasy football strategy updates from Jonathan on the DraftKings Playbook.
In 1-week fantasy football, matchups are extremely important, and can determine whether you place 1st and win $1 Million, or place 2nd and win $100,000!
While it’s difficult to determine how much defensive quality matters relative to a player’s actual talent—a version of the old “nature vs. nurture” debate—there’s little doubt that our fantasy players benefit immensely from facing inferior opponents.
In this article, I want to examine how much matchups matter, focusing specifically on the quarterback position.
Below, I charted fantasy production by position over the past five years, sorted by defense rank. I analyzed pass defense rank for quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends, and I assessed run defense quality for running backs.
You can see that tight ends are the least affected by defense rank, followed by wide receivers, running backs, and finally quarterbacks. I think that’s to be expected, for a couple reasons.
The most obvious is that quarterbacks and running backs have the largest number of relevant plays per game—maybe 35 passing attempts for quarterbacks and 20 or so touches for running backs. Compare that to an average of no more than 10 targets even for the game’s elite receivers. That means pass-catchers have less opportunity for their production to regress toward the mean and be an accurate reflection of both talent and defensive strength.
Here’s how things break down if we analyze the difference in the typical player’s production versus top 10 and bottom 10 defenses.
The average quarterback scores five more points against a bottom 10 defense than he does versus top 10 defenses. That’s a significant number, and the greatest effect we see at any position.
So we know that defense quality matters. How can we best project how a quarterback will perform in a given game?
Which Numbers to Consider
While there’s a significant correlation between overall defensive rank and fantasy production, analyzing defenses in terms of bulk numbers isn’t the best way to go about things. Each game is unique and has a different game script, and the most important projection we have to make as it relates to quarterbacks is attempts.
For that reason, analyzing passing yards allowed and, even more so, passing touchdowns allowed is a poor way to assess pass defense strength. Pass defenses on otherwise strong football teams often look worse than they are in terms of bulk yards and points because, if the team is leading late in most games, that defense sees a lot of attempts from the opponent.
For that reason, we should analyze pass defenses in terms of efficiency, not bulk stats. The best of those stats is probably net-YPA allowed. Net-YPA allowed tracks how many yards a defense has allowed per attempt, and it also factors sacks into the mix. It’s more predictive than simple YPA when it comes to projecting future production for both quarterbacks and defenses.
The key point is to analyze defensive strength in terms of past efficiency and then multiply that efficiency by projected workload (as opposed to using bulk stats to determine how good or bad a defense has been against the pass).
Access to Touchdowns
All other things equal, we want to target the players who are going to score the most touchdowns. Touchdowns are volatile on the week-to-week level, but certain players have more access to scoring opportunities than others.
One really smart way to project a quarterback’s touchdown count in a given game is to use the Vegas lines. The Vegas lines are a really accurate proxy for projected points. And if you know how many points an offense is likely to score in a game against a certain opponent, you can use a quarterback’s past market share of touchdowns to determine his scoring projection.
If the Packers are projected by Vegas to score 28 points, for example, and you know Aaron Rodgers accounts for 75 percent of Green Bay’s points, you can effectively project Rodgers at three touchdowns. The formula is simple: Vegas projection * Past market share of points.
Finally, note that matchups seem to matter the most for middle and bottom-tier quarterbacks. Lackluster passers are very, very unlikely to torch a quality pass defense, so they almost need an overly easy matchup to provide reliable fantasy production.
The opposite is true for elite quarterbacks. The top passers—Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Luck, and so on—are capable of putting up sensational fantasy production against anyone; while it’s obviously better to face a poor pass defense, going up against a good one isn’t a death blow for the game’s top passers.
Actually, one of the best ways to increase your tournament win probability on DraftKings is to target an elite quarterback in what’s considered a difficult matchup (Andrew Luck versus the Pats in Week 11, for example). The matchup will get users off of that quarterback, so you’ll have access to a potentially elite performance from a quarterback who is also low-usage.