This article is part of our DFS Tournament Guide series.
The search for "value" is a big part of any successful DFS player's weekly process, but for those of us who strictly enter large-field tournaments it's just the first step on a longer journey. Unlike cash-game specialists, we're willing to sacrifice a few points on a lineup's mean projection to have a better shot at finishing in the top 1 percent of the field. Correlation plays (a.k.a stacks or mini-stacks) are the obvious centerpiece of this strategy, allowing us to double-down on our bets instead of hedging them. We also need to consider ownership rates and often embrace high-variance players (i.e. RBs that don't catch passes & TD-dependent tight ends).
The goal here is to walk you through my process of building tournament lineups, rather than just listing the players that I plan to use heavily. Bear with me if it feels like a work in progress — I'm quickly finding out how difficult it is to put something in writing after years of doing it without really explaining the method to anyone else. I'll break things down into six sections for Week 1, with the flexibility to add more as the season moves along. There are a few things — namely unresolved injury situations and snap-count evaluations — that won't really come into play until next week.
Player prices will only be mentioned for the two largest DFS sites, but much of what's being discussed can be applied throughout the industry. We're breaking down the primary DFS slate, consisting of the 12 games played Sunday afternoon.
Point-Per-Dollar Value Plays
Variance is our friend in large tournaments, but we still need a few building-block players that are strong bets to outperform their price tags, even if they don't have the highest ceilings and are likely to be popular plays. This admittedly tends to favor cheap volume over talent, with teammate injuries and matchups playing a big role. Here are my favorites for Week 1:
QB Andrew Luck, IND (vs. CIN), ($6,100 DK; $7,300 FD)
Hesitance is understandable given that we haven't seen Luck in a real game since 2016, but the favorable price outweighs any concerns about loss of arm strength or shaking off rust. The Colts have the fifth-highest implied total (25.25) among 24 teams on Sunday's main slate, facing a Cincinnati defense with a rookie starter at safety (Jessie Bates) and no comparable replacement for the perpetually suspended Vontaze Burfict at linebacker. Luck is priced 10th among QBs on DraftKings and ninth on FanDuel — marks that don't quite jibe with the lofty implied total. We all know the Colts are a mess in the backfield, and it's also a safe bet that their inexperienced, undermanned defense will give up enough points to keep Luck busy throughout the afternoon.
RB James Conner, PIT (at CLE), ($4,500 DK; $5,000 FD)
DK at least considered the possibility of Le'Veon Bell prolonging his holdout, while FD priced Conner in the same range where he fell last season. No matter, the third-year pro is a phenomenal Week 1 play on both sites, albeit with the value a bit more obvious on FD. Though no match for his disgruntled backfield mate in terms of talent, Conner has a real chance to approach the type of workload we've grown accustomed to seeing from Bell. The Steelers' other options at running back are 29-year-old Stevan Ridley and fifth-round rookie Jaylen Samuels, a duo that combined for 139 yards on 46 carries during the preseason. Conner showed some three-down potential in August, catching seven passes for 61 yards on top of a 19-100-1 rushing line.
WR Keelan Cole, JAX (at NYG), ($3,800 DK; $4,500 FD)
Cole became the best bet to lead Jacksonville in targets as soon as Marqise Lee suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Jags had been running Cole and Lee as their starting duo all throughout the offseason and into training camp, with Dede Westbrook, Donte Moncrief and D.J. Chark mixing in behind. We still shouldn't expect to see true No. 1 WR volume, but six or seven targets is a reasonable expectation. Cole produced 17.8 yards per catch and 9.2 per target as an undrafted rookie last season, doing most of his damage in December when Lee and Allen Hurns were both injured.
Correlation plays are the centerpiece of any DFS tournament lineup, and this is where I start to prioritize ceiling and ownership rates over point-per-dollar projections. Not to say we can't also find value, but it's often worth a small sacrifice in that department to avoid the stacks that will crop up in a multitude of lineups. The ideal scenario allows us to match our QB with one of his primary targets as well as a pass catcher from the other team, hoping to capitalize on a tight, high-scoring affair in which both sides stay aggressive deep into the fourth quarter. With that mind, here are the games I'm focusing on for Sunday:
Bengals at Colts
I've already made my case for Andrew Luck as the top QB play of the week, in part because there's little reason for faith in the Indianapolis rushing game or defense. Andy Dalton ($5,800 DK; $6,800 FD) is nearly as strong of an option, and the game is also loaded with high-ceiling pass catchers beyond the obvious duo of A.J. Green ($7,300 DK; $8,400 FD) and T.Y. Hilton ($6,800 DK; $7,200 FD). I like the idea of adding John Ross ($3,900 DK; $5,100 FD) to a Luck-Hilton stack or Jack Doyle ($3,600 DK; $5,600 FD) to a Dalton-Green stack. The pricing also creates a decent argument for Luck-Doyle-Green on DraftKings or Dalton-Ross-Hilton on FanDuel. And while a four-man stack is usually overkill, Luck-Hilton-Doyle-Green on DK is one I can actually get behind.
Chiefs at Chargers
This game already had my full attention before we knew Chargers DL Joey Bosa (foot) and Chiefs S Eric Berry (heel) wouldn't be playing. Berry's absence exacerbates the massive gap between offensive and defensive talent on the KC roster, and Bosa's injury leaves Los Angeles weak in the front seven. The Chargers do have an excellent group of corners, but they'll have a tough time against Travis Kelce ($6,400 DK; $7,100 FD) and Kareem Hunt ($6,900 DK; $8,000 FD) without Bosa creating havoc up front. Despite struggling against the Chiefs in two matchups last season, Philip Rivers ($6,400 DK; $7,500 FD) should pile up points in a hurry with his team carrying the fourth-highest implied total (25.75) on the main slate. Give some thought to stacking Rivers with Tyrell Williams ($4,200 DK; $5,200 FD) instead of Keenan Allen ($7,500 DK; $8,000 FD), as the latter figures to spend a lot of time in the slot against Kansas City's only respectable corner (Kendall Fuller). A Rivers-Williams-Kelce stack leaves room for a couple premium players elsewhere in your lineup while also mitigating high-ownership concerns.
While not nearly as important as quarterback-receiver combos, RB-Defense mini-stacks present another opportunity to take advantage of positive correlations in tournament lineups. We're generally looking for teams that are comfortably favored to win, preferably with a starting running back who dominates carries and goal-line work.
Alex Collins ($5,600 DK; $6,700 FD) + Ravens D/ST ($3,800 DK, $4,800 FD)
Collins got the superstar treatment this preseason, taking just three carries for 33 yards while gearing up for what should be a busy campaign. His lack of pass-catching ability will be problematic when the Ravens are forced to play from behind, but it shouldn't be an issue this week in a home game against a Buffalo team with the lowest implied total (16.5) on the slate. While I'd normally try to avoid an expensive defense that also comes with high ownership, the Ravens simply are in too good of a spot to fade, facing QB Nathan Peterman behind a shaky offensive line. Let's take the safe points and find other places to be contrarian.
RB David Johnson, ARI (vs. WAS), ($8,800 DK; $8,600 FD)
Alvin Kamara may be getting all the hype, but Johnson is actually our best bet to finish Week 1 as the league leader in touches. The Cardinals are relying on Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and not much else, with a dump-off specialist under center and an offensive line built for run blocking. The 26-year-old shouldn't have much trouble reaching triple-digit scrimmage yards and at least one touchdown against a Washington team that's counting on unproven talent to turn around the league's last-ranked run defense from 2017 (134.1 yards per game). Johnson's three-down skillset plays best in close contests, so we should be happy to roster him in a game that many sportsbooks are listing as an outright pick'em.
Travis Kelce, KC (at LAC), ($6,400 DK; $7,100 FD)
I'm not quite ready to fade Rob Gronkowski entirely, but I am ready to take advantage of Kelce's reduced ownership whenever Gronk is the dominant choice for those looking to pay up at tight end. This figures to be one of those weeks, as the Patriots have an implied total of 28.25 points and will probably need to force targets to their star tight end until Julian Edelman returns from suspension. I understand the argument, but I also think people are underestimating the chances of the Patriots-Texans game turning into a slugfest, considering both teams appear healthy on defense for the first time since the beginning of last season. Meanwhile, Kelce gets to face a Chargers defense that's missing its best pass rusher and starting a rookie (Derwin James) at free safety. The Chargers do still have an impressive group of cornerbacks, which could funnel targets toward Kelce and Kareem Hunt ($6,900 DK; 8,000 FD).
Fading The Field
In keeping with my love for David Johnson, it only makes sense to steer clear of Kamara on a slate where either he or James Conner will pace RB ownership. I'd rather ride with the discount option while hoping Sean Payton stays true to his stated intention of not overworking Kamara during Mark Ingram's four-game suspension. The thinking isn't that Kamara will have a bad game this weekend, but rather that the Saints simply won't need him too much in the second half. I'm hoping for a lot of Drew Brees in the first half and a lot of Mike Gillislee (or Jonathan Williams/Boston Scott) in the second half. My confidence in this fade admittedly will wane a bit if the Saints don't call up a running back from the practice squad Saturday.
Betting against Antonio Brown may be fruitless in the real world, but it's often a necessary strategy in DFS, where his ownership rate rarely drops below 15-to-20 percent. It could stretch into the 20s this weekend, with value at other positions allowing people to load up on the all-too-popular Gronk+Brown lineups. Given that I'm already heavily invested in Conner, it makes sense to hope Cleveland can contain Brown to something in the range of 7-90-1 — a line that wouldn't lead to regret about leaving him out of tournament lineups. The weather could be our best friend in this case, as the Sunday forecast in Cleveland calls for light rain and winds around 20 mph. The rain probably wouldn't be a major concern, but the wind most certainly would be (keep this in mind if you're looking at anyone else from the PIT-CLE game).
The Bargain Bin
QB Case Keenum, DEN (vs. SEA), ($5,100 DK; $6,300 FD)
RB Royce Freeman, DEN (vs. SEA), ($4,500 DK; $6,000 FD)
WR Tyler Lockett, SEA (at DEN), ($4,300 DK; $5,600 FD)
WR John Ross, CIN (at IND), ($3,900 DK; $5,100 FD)
TE Nick Vannett, SEA (at DEN), ($2,600 DK; $4,300 FD)