Chapter 1: Research with Headchopper
At its core, daily fantasy football is about transforming research into quality lineups, and the best players find a way to research in the most efficient ways possible. To discuss the research aspect of daily fantasy sports, I spoke with Headchopper—widely considered one of the game’s most elite players. He’s the 2013 DFBBC Champion, a three-time FFFC finalist, a two-time DFFC finalist, PFBC finalist, PFFC finalist, and DSBBC finalist. He was also the runner-up for 2012 Tournament Player of the Year.
Headchopper has been ranked near the top of the RotoGrinders leaderboards since 2009, as high as the No. 3 overall daily fantasy player in the world. Here’s a look at his current ranks in each sport.
Currently ranked as a top 20 NFL player in the world, Headchopper is more than qualified to dish out daily fantasy research advice.
What are your favorite sites to use when researching for daily fantasy football?
My favorite is probably RotoGrinders. They have so many awesome tools and everything is right there, man. I like to use the tools to check player values and see what some of the other experts are thinking. And I can check a lot of different stats right there too—targets, red zone stats, stuff like that. Plus you get everything for free if you sign up for a site through their links.
Pro Football Focus also has some good information. That’s really a nice blend of stats and film, and I’m just as much of a film guy for football as stats, so that’s helpful stuff. It’s nice to see the stuff you see on film quantified, and they have a lot of unique stats like air yards and yards before contact. I also check out Football Outsiders, which is a similar type of thing, although more stats-based.
But like I said, I really prefer to watch film whenever possible because sometimes NFL stats can be a little misleading, so I subscribe to NFL Game Rewind. That allows me to go back and watch any game, and you can also check out the coaches’ film, which is nice. That’s really the biggest thing for me. I really like to watch the footage; sometimes the stats can be really helpful but sometimes you just need to see what’s going on.
In terms of reading analysis and stuff like that, I don’t really do too much of it. My research is mainly just looking up different stats and watching the games. I have a few other players whose opinions I trust, so I consult with them and I’ll read their stuff from time to time if they write, but for the most part I kind of like to do my own thing.
There’s so much information out there that everything gets so watered down. You can find different opinions on just about every player or game, so I try not to get affected by that stuff too much. It’s more about just doing my own research and drawing my own conclusions so that I’m not biased one way or the other from something I read.
How important is a routine to you?
A routine is extremely important for me, personally. I’ve made plenty of trips out to Vegas and L.A. and wherever to do the competitions for football, baseball, and basketball. I’m not using it as an excuse or anything, but it’s extremely difficult for me to get out of my routine.
You go there and you might be on a different computer, you might be out doing stuff when you’d normally be in researching in your normal groove. For me, I really rely on that normal everyday routine. I have everything on my desktop computer and my play can suffer when I get away from it. That’s something I really want to try to fix as I travel, but for guys who are on the road a lot, that’s just an extra challenge thrown in there.
Do you start your research with site salaries or wait to look at those?
Yeah I don’t look at the salaries until really late in the process. I start off by looking at the matchups, just trying to find guys who I like and don’t like. I think that’s most important in football, because if I really like a guy, I’ll pretty much find a way to get him in there, and if I’m really down on a guy, it almost doesn’t even matter what his salary is. The value and stuff is important, but it’s more important to just figure out who is going to play well, who isn’t, and then go from there.
Which stats do you value most in the NFL?
For quarterbacks, I actually prefer to look at numbers on the secondary before doing anything else. Quarterbacks are a little bit of a different breed, so I’m looking at secondary stats on Pro Football Focus and RotoGrinders. It’s pretty easy to know which quarterbacks are best—it’s not really hard to determine like it might be for another position—so I like to first look at the defense and grade the matchup.
For running backs, I like yards-per-carry. I know some people don’t like that as much because it can get thrown off by long runs, but if a guy’s YPC is inflated from long runs, that probably means he’s explosive. And YPC in general is generally a pretty good indicator of offensive line strength.
For receivers, the number one thing for me is touchdowns. There’s certain types of players who score a lot, and particular players just get way more chances to score a lot. Scoring from 30 or 40 yards out is a fluky sort of thing, so red zone targets is probably the most important stat for me.
If you’re seeing a ton of red zone looks, you’re going to have a much higher chance of scoring, and that’s gonna bump you up on my list quite a bit. Sometimes a receiver might be a little unlucky with how often he’s converting those targets into touchdowns, but if it’s a guy I know can score, I just care that he’s getting the red zone looks and will keep getting ‘em.
How do you know when to trust the numbers and when to go with your gut?
I’d say on the range of subjectivity, I’m definitely more of an instinct player than someone who sits down with a spreadsheet and tries to work out matchups and stats. I definitely understand that aspect of it and I consider those stats in my research, but that’s not something that I personally do.
I think that ultimately you still need to have a feel for it and have some sort of instinct for it. I read a lot less expert stuff these days just because I think it can sort of cloud my own judgments. In the end, you need to figure it out for yourself.
One thing I’ll say is that even though it’s about trusting your instincts, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your “gut” by using stats or other objective means. That stuff can help shape you as a player and help you make better decisions. But if you’re just blindly following those numbers or listening to what a particular analyst says, that’s not going to help much in the long run.
How do you know when to trust or overlook player news? Do you use Twitter?
As far as player news, I really don’t pay much attention to that stuff. The only thing I really care about is the injury stuff. If there’s an injury concern, then I’ll try to dig through that information and figure out what’s likely to happen with him. You have to dig a lot sometimes because the reporters are wrong a lot, or else they’re getting bad information because teams aren’t that willing to disclose injury news.
But as far as generic player news like if a guy is expected to do well, I don’t care about that stuff, man. Like I said, I really don’t follow the analysis type of stuff. There are so many differing opinions out there that you can find whatever you want. And even in terms of injury stuff, I just want straight reporting instead of any type of predictions. The “this guy is battling through an injury” stuff isn’t helpful to me. If you’re healthy enough to be in the lineup, then I’m going to play you if you’re ready to go.
In terms of Twitter, I really don’t use it a whole lot for NFL stuff, to be honest. I don’t even have anyone specific I follow for NFL news on there. That’s more important for basketball and baseball.
When doing research, are you looking more at a specific player/team, or do you care more about matchups?
Well let me put it like this: in baseball, it’s 99 percent matchup stuff. It’s basically all matchup-based. In basketball, it’s the opposite end of the spectrum; it’s completely value-based. I know who the great players are in a given night, matchups don’t matter as much, and I’m just looking to see how much value I can get out of you.
I think football is a mix of those two sports. You want the value in terms of the salary, you know, but you also need to consider the matchup. It’s just a unique situation because neither one should be the only thing you consider, or even close.
Sometimes you can kind of disregard a poor matchup if the value is there, and other times a guy might have a juicy matchup and you might be a little more hesitant because of his salary. But you can’t just load up on one or the other. If you’re purely value-based, you might not have the best team just in terms of putting up a whole lot of points. Some guys might be poor values but can just go for 200 yards in any game.
If you’re strictly matchup-based, you’re ignoring a big part of puzzle. If we just stuck to matchups, everyone would have pretty much the same lineup. You can’t just plug in a running back who’s playing the worst run defense or something like that. But I’ve seen plenty of times when good offenses just explode on great defenses and not a lot of people used players from the game because it was considered a bad matchup.
Actually, that sort of thing happens every week in the NFL and a big part of playing daily fantasy football is figuring out when it’s going to happen. If you can identify a situation where a team is going to maybe perform a little bit better than the matchup suggests or when a single player might bust out even though he doesn’t appear to offer value, that’s a big advantage.
So I care about matchups and value, but not to the extent that either one by itself defines who I’m going to play. It’s a mix.
Headchopper mentioned NFL Game Rewind and I really can’t emphasize enough how useful that is for daily fantasy football. Thanks to NFL Game Rewind, I’m able to watch every play from every game every week. Football is a sport that can’t be completely explained with data, at least not at this point, so there’s value in studying the film.
The coaches’ film is particularly useful because you can key in on certain players really easily—wide receivers or cornerbacks especially. I’m obviously still a data-driven player and I don’t think there’s a substitute for the analytics, but it helps to understand the foundation for those numbers, which watching tape can do.
There’s also a ton of value in a daily routine, which headchopper touched on. For me, that means getting in leagues early so I don’t have the stress of doing it all at the last minute, finishing all of the research that I can before injury reports come out, and so on. I like to monitor the activity of the Vegas lines, too. Doing all of that stuff at a set time is important; as you improve that process, you can really make it more efficient so that you can ultimately do more research and make better lineups.
A final thing that I want to note is that I actually create a lineup right after games have ended from the previous week. So on Monday night or Tuesday morning, I’ll make a lineup before doing any sort of research—just my gut feel.
Once I do all of my research for the week, I come back to that lineup once the weekend rolls around and I look at what I initially liked about those players. When my research coincides with my gut, I’ll definitely target those players. When it doesn’t, I’ll examine it more to see why I either liked a player who the numbers suggest isn’t a good play, or why I didn’t like a player who maybe I should have been on.
I don’t simply trust my gut and I typically side with the numbers, but I think I can make good natural decisions and I have a decent feel for players and situations, so I always prefer my hunches to match up with the data. Making a lineup at the start of the week makes sure it’s all about “feel” instead of being pulled one way or the other by the numbers.
Headchopper is one of the best NFL players out there, and he makes a lot of good points here. One of my favorite is that he searches for touchdown-scoring ability in receivers. Touchdowns are far less replaceable than yards and first downs, and we see the same type of receivers continually dominate near the goal line.
Here’s a look at wide receiver and tight end red zone efficiency—the percentage of red zone targets converted into scores—broken down by weight.
I’ve done more research on touchdown-scoring ability than anything else in fantasy football, and weight is the biggest predictor of touchdowns for receivers. It’s actually amazing how closely the two are linked—even more so than height. NFL offenses continually undervalue the role of tight ends and big receivers near the goal line (even though they use them, it should be even more).
In terms of actionable advice, I think it makes sense to target receivers who are 1) going to see a lot of red zone targets and 2) likely to convert those into touchdowns. That’s especially true in tournaments when you want as much upside as possible.
Slot receivers who see a high volume of targets can be useful in certain leagues on PPR sites, but they still don’t possess elite upside if they can’t score on a consistent basis. Ideally, your wide receivers should weight 210-plus (and preferably more) and have a history of red zone success.