If you’re playing in any of the tournament-style Best Ball games this year, then you know that just getting past the 12 teams in your division isn’t going to be enough to get you to the top prizes in those tourneys. The playoffs on Underdog and DraftKings start on Week 15 with two rounds of smaller field competition. In Week 17 you will have to beat a much larger field. The rounds leading up to that larger field final week are in the 12 to 18 range, depending on which tournament we’re in. In Week 17, we have to beat either 115 opponents on Underdog or 235 opponents on DraftKings to take home the big money. What this means is we not only want to build rosters to beat our 12-person regular season group, we also want to keep an eye toward the finals. Adam Harstad posted a link to a collection of his tweets outlining why playoffs matter and gave his odds on advancing to the finals based on weekly finishes starting with Week 1 and then again for each round of the playoff format.
Some have already taken to this concept and are drafting for soft-schedule stacks during those final 3 weeks. Since early on in my fantasy football experience I have adopted this concept and have done my ranking sheets with the playoff schedule in mind and used it to break ties on draft day in my redraft leagues. As the game of fantasy football grew and became more competitive, I not only looked and “guessed” at what teams might have easier playoff games, I took to giving more thought to analyzing those weeks and opponents and created my own Strength of Schedule sheets. In 2021, I did my most in-depth look at Strength of Schedule and wrote an article documenting my process and results for FantasyData.com to fully illustrate the finished product. That work is behind a paywall so I can’t share all of it but I do recommend that you read it if you have a subscription there. What I can do here is share a tiered chart of where I see some players with advantageous playoff scheduling that we may want to consider higher within their regular season (or Weeks 1-17) tiers.
We can use this chart and compare it to the NFL schedule grid below to see where we not only want to break ties using this chart, but we may want to put even more weight on Week 17.
With this data at hand, let’s go over some of the players and stacks that could take us to the top.
Right away, we’ll notice the 49ers are in great shape to crush in real life and fantasy football this season and we’re going to want to take some shots on Trey Lance in drafts. Trey Lance is already going in a range of Rounds 10 through 12 as the QB14 on Underdog yet he hasn’t been named the starter to this point. His training camp reports and highlights have 49er fans smitten with his prospects but there are also glowing reports on how well Jimmy Garapolo looks. Referencing back to some of Adam Harstad’s work, he replied to Dwain McFarland on one of Dwain’s tweets sparking a conversation about upside and risk-taking to capitalize on uncertainty. One of the things he mentioned was that incumbent starters will start the season but when they falter the younger player tends to take over after about halfway through the year. Lance, like a few other players this year, come with high ADPs relative to their beginning of the season outlook that forces us into a “cost of doing business” decision.
Trey Lance is one of those “cost of doing business” guys I am willing to pay up for. Because, if I’m drafting Trey Lance, that means I am embracing the risk of taking a “0” the week my other QB is on a bye week if Lance has not earned the starting role yet. We can mitigate this in a few ways. 1) draft Jimmy Garoppolo late in a 3QB build to have the 49ers QB1 all year, 2) realize Lance may still take the field the week our other QB is out and still score a few points on a designed run or two, or 3) draft Lance as your #1 QB and take any other two QBs late in a build that starts your QB acquisitions in Rd10 (or thereabouts). To build a 49ers stack will usually cost a 3rd round pick for George Kittle, a 4th or 5th round pick for Brandon Aiyuk, a 5th or 6th round pick for Deebo Samuel, and Mohamed Sanu is currently going undrafted. To loop in Jimmy G will usually require our final pick to cover. Any of these groupings and how many you want to roster are perfectly fine. Not everyone gets to play the Houston Texans in Week 17, which is what has driven up the ADP on these guys.
Going back to the idea of embracing uncertainty (which is one of JMtoWin’s philosophies), Tua Tagovailoa ties with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and the “NE starting QB” for the top grade for Week 17 games. Tagovailoa brings a lot more uncertainty with him than Mahomes and Allen, but NE QB1 could also be considered an uncertainty and both of them are going near the end of drafts if we were to take that path. So far, I have embraced Cam Newton as the starter for all of 2021 and have covered none of my multiple Cam and Jonnu Smith and/or Hunter Henry stacks with Mac Jones. Several of these stacks instead rely on a 3rd QB from another team or just going 2 QBs for the build assuming I got Cam right. My main focus with the Cam build is to get one or both of the Patriots’ TEs late in drafts with the belief both will smash their ADP in that offensive scheme, then follow it up with Cam in the very late rounds. Cam provides the bonus of being a running QB who could handle many of their green-zone carries for TDs. If we think about TD distribution in New England this year, there’s a good chance Cam runs in 30% of them and throws for the rest, likely to one of the TEs.
However, getting back to Tua’s uncertainty. His WRs have been banged up a bit to start training camp leaving him to throw to Jaylen Waddle, Albert Wilson, and Jakeem Grant. DeVante Parker finally practiced on August 4th but we’re still waiting on Fuller to step back onto the field. This group is going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses when all are healthy, which is great news for Tua, who has been getting plenty of Miami hype in camp (if you’re new to Miami beat writers, then you’ll probably believe everyone of their players is heading to the pro-bowl this year). Additional uncertainty surrounds Tua because we have a year-two QB in a co-offensive coordinator situation where both OCs are calling plays for the first time. This could cause trouble early in the year, a period where new play-callers and schemes may have the advantage of no tape to decipher tendencies from. If this works out for Tua, Godsey, and Studesville, then we can capitalize on the uncertainty of this offense after the 12th round. Tua’s pass catchers start getting drafted in the 8th round (Will Fuller) on Underdog, with Waddle about 10 picks later, then Parker in another 10 picks after that. Albert Wilson is a very late-round option and the TE (Gesicki) is going near rounds 10 or 11. This is a decent stack at cost and will likely be one of the lower rostered stacks because of the offense’s situation.
As is the case with the 49ers having a soft schedule, that carries over to the entire NFC West since schedules are nearly identical except for a couple of teams. That puts Arizona, Los Angeles, and Seattle all in great shape, too. I have been drafting a lot of the Rams passing stacks early, but after this exercise and looking at that Week 17 date in Baltimore, I think I’m going to start drafting for more exposure to some of the other stacks mentioned above to even things out a bit more.
The way I am approaching RB this year depends on the flow of the draft and where my selection is. There are 3 RBs I’m taking when I get a top 3 pick, McCaffrey, Cook, and Kamara. After that, the RB landscape gets rocky. If we’re looking toward the final three games and the final game, in particular, it gives us a clearer picture of how to navigate. I’m looking for the RBs with killer playoff schedules like IND, LAC, SF, CHI, DEN, and ARI; roughly in that order. The Vikings and Saints also have playoff schedules or Week 17 games that justify drafting Cook and Kamara early in the 1st round. Let’s look at the teams with RBs going a bit later that we can set ourselves up with for the playoff run.
The Colts lost their starting QB and All-World guard to the same foot injury with the same wide range of recovery estimates. This has brought uncertainty to the field when it comes to how to value Jonathan Taylor. In my opinion, the guard comes back sooner than the quarterback because that’s what tough guys in the trenches do. We can optimistically place a bet that Taylor still has the RB1 In his range of outcomes because now he will be relied on more than ever, and we get to buy the dip with his falling ADP to gain an advantage on rosters that have him at an earlier opportunity cost. Wentz being down puts more reliance on Taylor, and you could also argue Nyheim Hines will take on a larger role as a check-down option for whoever ends up starting at QB for a few weeks. Jonathan Taylor and his OL (even missing Nelson for a couple or few weeks) are good enough to plod through their schedule riding JT until Wentz comes back. If Wentz comes back and is fine, then Taylor has less of the burden but should still be heavily involved. It’s that Week 17 game against the Raiders awful defense that has my attention.
The Chargers have indicated that Austin Ekeler may be taken off of the field in goal-to-go type situations. This puts a damper on his bell-cow status, but didn’t we expect that was going to happen anyway? I didn’t think they would solely rely on Ekeler as the goal-line back. When reading the coach’s comments to the press, they make it sound like Ekeler is going to play the Kamara role in that offense. He may still get some opportunities in the red zone, but from time to time, Joshua Kelly or someone else is going to do the dirty work to pick up the 1 and 2-yard scores. Ekeler is still going to catch a lot of balls and break off chunk plays. He’ll be used more in a variety of ways in a pass-catching role. Ekeler will square off against Denver in Week 17, a team that allowed 131 rushing yards and 1.33 rushing TDs per game in 2020. To get to that game he’ll have to go through KC, and then HOU, both of which can be vulnerable to RBs as well.
The 49ers have a goal of hitting 500 or more carries this year. Their RBs are going later than Taylor and Ekeler which makes them easier to roster when you’re stockpiling WRs early. Trey Sermon is being drafted ahead of Raheem Mostert by about half a round. I’m cool with Sermon, but not at cost. At best, he’ll handle the first-down plays and possibly some short-yardage stuff, but he’ll have competition from Gallman there. Gallman has been excellent in short-yardage situations during his career and is the second-best blocking back on the 49ers based on PFF grades (Mostert has the top grade). The valuable snaps will go to Mostert as the change of pace and passing game back. Mostert has the advantage on both guys with his tenure, understanding, and fit in the offense and his production speaks for itself. Go back and watch the 2019 NFC Championship game to get an idea of what a healthy Mostert can do. Trey Sermon is nowhere near the athlete Mostert is and will not be able to run away from everyone the way Mostert can. Talking about 500 carries, we could estimate that would allow Mostert 175+ shots at a homerun on the ground, plus 20 to 30 targets where they can get him into space with the ball. If we want to handcuff Mostert, we’ll be too late to do it with Sermon (unless you hit a rare draft that you can snag both) but we could consider Wayne Gallman or Jeff Wilson in the final round. For me, just taking the Mosterati out and leaving the other Niner backs in the garage is fine. As a bonus correlation play, I’ve been grabbing Brandin Cooks in the next round on the idea that Mostert should do heavy damage to the Texans, in turn forcing them to the air that game. Sort of a DFS approach on that.
With David Montgomery going in the 4th round of drafts, we can rely on starting our drafts with WR-WR-WR (or one of the TEs in there) and pick up Montgomery in Round 4, then Mostert in Round 7 or 8. If we do, we’ll have 2 of the better Week 17 RB match-ups in our builds and will accomplish that at bargain pricing for the position. The Bears will play the Giants in Week 17 and while the Giants weren’t a pushover when it came to their run defense last year, there is some cause for optimism in 2021. The Giants are changing out three guys in their front 7 which could make them a bit softer against the run, especially if their secondary makes it as tough to throw against as I anticipate. There have been drafts where I’ll even take Damien Williams very late to pair with Montgomery just to make sure I’m taking advantage of Chicago’s full season and playoff schedule. An “either/or” here works, too. Take Montgomery in Rd4 if you want to, or take Williams in the later rounds and see if things break his way by the end of the season.
One of the backfields I’ve recently felt compelled to draft has been Denver’s. They’re going to play good enough defense to stay competitive in games and their passing game is enough to keep the box from getting crowded. First off, let me be clear that I think Javonte Williams’ ADP is gross. Although, it does seem to be slipping a bit lately, which is nice. If we look at some of those comments I referenced earlier made by Harstad, he explains how incumbent veterans tend to get beaten out later in the year. So, if we want to have the starting Bronco back for the Cincy, Vegas, Chargers games, then we have to consider Javonte as another one of those “cost of doing business” picks and embrace the uncertainty. Like Chicago, I am occasionally trying to get both components of this backfield. Unfortunately, that means about a 6th round pick followed by a 10th or 11th round pick for one backfield. This is not a cheap way to approach this situation but I would also guess not many people are playing it this way. If the younger back takes over for the older back toward the end of the season, then we’re locking in the Melvin Gordon points early in the year, and then the Williams points for the playoff run. More often than not, just getting one or the other and not tying too much capital up in this backfield is probably the more +EV way to approach it. Doubling down on it is just a way to create a unique build.
The Cardinals backfield will face the Lions, Colts, then Cowboys during the BB tournament period. While the Colts will be a tough game, the Lions and Cowboys each allowed over 135 yards per game on the ground and at least 1.3 rushing TDs per game to opposing offenses last year. Both were among the worst in Adjusted Line Yards allowed to opponents with 4.97 and 4.52 respectively, per Football Outsiders metrics. That Arizona at Dallas game in Week 17 looks to be one of the higher probability games for a lot of points scored. Per this tweet sent out by one of the Cardinals beats, Chase Edmonds is in line to see the heavier workload in this backfield, and it’s not as even of a split as some think it may be. Edmonds is going in the same range as Javonte Williams and Raheem Mostert, which presents us with tough decisions to make if we’re only drafting a few teams. If we’re drafting to max out our entries, then this allows us to bet on all three of the Denver, San Francisco, and Arizona backfields. In some cases, we might be able to net all three if we take MG3 instead of Javonte.
Another way we can try to maximize our tournament rosters is by applying the DFS tactic of correlation. We can do this in a couple of ways, either by running back a player or two against a passing stack we’ve built, or do something as simple as I mentioned above by correlating Mostert and Cooks. To do this, we’re going to want to identify games where there are going to be two high-powered offenses on the field (ie. Arizona at Dallas) or a lopsided affair where we want an RB and an opposing WR correlation (ie. Houston at San Francisco). Let’s look at a few games we might want to focus some roster construction around to raise our probability of smashing in Week 17.
Arizona at Dallas will be near the top of my list. Both offenses are loaded with talent and the defenses on either side won’t be able to dictate the game flow. Kansas City at Cincinnati could be a nice way to bring back any Chiefs stacks or players with a Cincy pass-catcher or even Joe Mixon. Assuming Carson Wentz’s foot is good to go, the Las Vegas at Indianapolis game could have some fireworks. I’d like to have Taylor and a Raiders receiver going for that one. Panthers/Saints (if taking CMC or Kamara in Round 1, bring it back with an opposing pass catcher), Broncos/Chargers (preferably stacking opposing RBs against each other here), and Vikings/Packers (Cook and a Packers pass-catcher) may also provide paths to upside at positions those teams are weak at.
Some of the lopsided games might include the Washington pass offense against the Eagles secondary and run it back with an Eagles pass catcher; the Colts RBs against Las Vegas and bring it back with a Raiders-pass catcher; the Chiefs RBs and Cincy receivers; or Zack Moss and Calvin Ridley or one of the Falcons TEs.
It is not lost on me that trying to predict SOS can be a fool’s errand. However, we’re trying to maximize our probability of winning, therefore it’s not as ridiculous as it may seem and it’s not like we’re going to draft only players with soft Week 17 games. There will be plenty of opportunities to draft the best player available. All we’re doing here is entertaining the idea of breaking a tie between one player and another within a tier based on that matchup. Or, we’re looking for games that “should be” high scoring to invest in that action before the season even starts. Sure, the season can take sour turns, but that’s what the rest of the roster is there for.
There was another idea that struck me that I want to point out. We might want to give favorable consideration to players getting a bye in Week 14 so that they are rested for the BB playoffs and their teams have the extra week to make adjustments to come out firing. This brings me back to the Colts, Dolphins, and Patriots, who I’ve already mentioned as good targets for their playoff schedules, but also adds the Eagles to the equation (who I am less high on). Any edge we can find, let’s hammer it!