Game Theory: How Should You Be Setting Your Fantasy Football Lineups?

There's a process to setting your lineup each week, and in this article, Evan explains which adjustments to make to that process and when to make them.

We’re headed into Week 4 of the fantasy football season, and yet, the stress-inducing process of setting your lineup is something we never really get used to. During my years playing fantasy football, I’ve discovered some tips on how to make that process a bit less miserable. Today, I’m going to share a few of these tips with you.

First off: let’s discuss the process. Football is a high-variance game. It is extremely difficult to predict what will happen. You will be wrong. A lot.  Your goal when setting your lineup should be to give yourself the best chance to win that week.

Your goal is not to be “right.”

In my last article, I brought up Nash Equilibrium: the process of reaching the most favorable outcome regardless of how things outside your control unfold. In fantasy football, we have two opponents that are outside of our control: 1) the manager we are matched up against and 2) variance. In order to give yourself the best chance to win, you need to consider both of these opponents.

First, let’s discuss variance. Variance is the embodiment of unpredictability in football. It’s everything that happens that isn’t what we expect. Even though we don’t know what variations will occur, we CAN get a pretty good idea of what MIGHT occur. I discussed this on Episode 2 of my podcast when I talked about range of outcomes. We should have some idea about what our players’ range of outcomes is. When we set our lineup, we should be considering them. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to gauge what a player’s range of outcomes are:

  • What is my player’s floor? Barring injury or an extreme outlier game, what is the lowest amount of points my player could score? How likely is it that my player hits their floor?

  • What is my player’s ceiling? Without relying on an extreme outlier performance from my player, what is the most fantasy points I can expect them to score? How likely is it that they hit their ceiling?

  • What might an average performance look like from my player? Is it closer to their floor or their ceiling? How confident am I that this is the average?

Now that we have a general idea of our player’s range of outcomes, we can use that to make decisions. We should know our players’ floor, their ceiling, their expected score, and their risk (how confident we are that we know what to expect from them). Good fantasy managers can discern all of their players’ range of outcomes in an instant and adjust them on the fly. Obviously, when setting your lineup, your first method should be to fill it with the players whose expected scores total the most points possible.

From there, we can make adjustments. Before making adjustments, managers should figure out what their weekly goal is: a safe, high-floor performance? A riskier high-ceiling performance? Something balanced? We can determine that by looking at our opponent’s starting roster. After you figure out what their players’ range of outcomes is, you should have an idea of what you’re up against.

Most fantasy platforms will show you a projection which should help a bit. Are you projected to win by a lot? Are you projected to lose by a lot? Is it a tight race?

Figure out what position you’re in. Your roster construction depends on this. Once you know, adjust your lineup in a few different ways:

  • If you’re projected (or you expect) to lose by a lot, then you should avoid starting players with a low ceiling and favor players with higher ceilings, even if they may be riskier or have lower floors.

  • If you’re projected to win by a lot, you should avoid riskier players with low floors and favor safer, high-floor options.

It’s important to note that most difficult deductions arise when you have a reliable, highly-drafted player and a less reliable long shot that you think might have more upside. The “start your studs” argument is a good one, but here’s the reason why: your studs are studs because their success is more predictable.

We are much less capable of predicting success with long shot players. Instead of inflating your ego and thinking you have the ability to guess when a long shot will pan out, you should probably just try to find ways to win elsewhere on your roster.

One of my favorite questions to ask myself when setting my lineups is, “Which player will cause me to have the biggest facepalm if they go off on my bench?”

That’s probably the one you should start.

Now that we know WHO we should be starting, we need to quickly discuss WHERE we should be starting them. Game theory teaches up to consider every possible outcome and optimize our decisions to best account for them. That’s why you shouldn’t put players that play in earlier games in our flex spots.

Sure, maybe it feels weird having your second-round draft pick wide receiver in your flex while you put some waiver wire flier in the wide receiver spot, but since we already decided what our starting roster will be, this shouldn’t matter.

Why should we avoid flexing players in earlier games? Because in the event that some unforeseen injury occurs to one of our starters in a later game, we will have more options to sub them out. If your early game player is in your flex and they’ve already played, then they’re locked into your flex. So if your second-round wide receiver pulls a hammy in practice on Friday, you can swap them out with anyone on your bench, not just another wide receiver. This is the easy part: knowing what to do with the information once you have it. The HARDER part is gathering the best information and forming the best opinions with them.

It is here that I must hand you off to someone much smarter than me. Player projections are a tricky beast, and I’m honest enough to know that others are better at it. Find a resource (or, ideally, resources) that is reliable and learn as much as you can. The more you know, the better you are able to form your range of outcomes. Once you complete that, we’re back to the start!

Good luck this season, my friends, and remember: trust the process.

Check out the podcast episode here.

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Photo attribution:

KeithJJ on Pixabay

A guest post by
Evan is the host of The Big Game Theory Podcast and specializes in teaching fantasy football managers how to apply the science of decision making to their fantasy leagues.