Game Theory: Which Positions Should You Stash on Your Bench?

Let's say you're in a league with only one bench spot. What type of player do you pick to fill that spot? To find the answer, we turn to a game theory principle known as "Nash Equilibrium."

How you manage waivers and free agency is often the difference between winning and losing your league. In this article, I’m going to give you a new perspective on how to approach in-season roster management.

Our starters aren’t just the players on our team scoring points that week. They aren’t even the bench players we have stored up for later in the season. We should be treating the waiver wire as an extension of our roster. Next week’s starters could very well be free agents right now.

Stop thinking of your bench players as the only backups you’ll need for the season. All too often I’ve seen managers stash an extra quarterback, extra tight end, or even—God forbid—an extra defense or kicker on their bench so they can play them during a bye week. 

Competitive game theory is all about finding something called “Nash Equilibrium.” Named after a local Arizona legend, Steve Nash… OK, not really. Nash Equilibrium basically means that you are optimizing your chances of achieving a favorable outcome regardless of how things outside of your control unfold. In fantasy football, we should be constantly striving for Nash Equilibrium. We should always be looking for ways to win that are independent of the variance of fantasy football. This is the optimal way to play.

Given all of that, I want to walk you through a quick mental exercise. Let’s say you’re playing in a standard 12-team league with typical roster settings (1QB, 2RB, 2WR, 1TE, 1Flex, 1K, 1D/ST), with one key change. You only have one bench spot. How do you manage that bench spot in a way that optimizes your chances of winning? I want you to think of this bench spot as a “dibs” claim on one single asset. Should something come up and you need access to your bench, you get ONE player to guarantee that nobody else takes from you. Who do you pick?

The process I’m about to teach you should be the process you use when determining how to manage your bench. First, let me call upon some topics I’ve previously discussed on my podcast, The Big Game Theory Podcast: positional scarcity and supply and demand. If you’re in that league I mentioned earlier, then you know that every team is only going to start one D/ST each week. That’s 11 teams (not counting yourself) that are going to roster at least 1 D/ST. Because there are 32 teams in the NFL, that leaves us with 21 D/STs that aren’t being started.

Let’s give this argument the benefit of the doubt and say that every team in this league also has a D/ST on their bench. Let’s call this our “worst-case scenario.” In our worst-case scenario, there are 22 D/STs being rostered, leaving us with 10 options to start this week. Not bad!

We can do this same exercise with the kicker position. Our worst-case scenario leaves us with 10 options. Again, that’s fine. How about QBs? There will be at least 32 QBs that score points every week, (and maybe one or two more, given gadget guys) so we still get our pick of the remaining 10 or so QBs. Same again for TE. The demand for each of those positions is 1, and the scarcity isn’t a large factor because they are largely replaceable.

I can get into the details more in a future article, but there really isn’t that much of a dropoff in predictability or production in most of those positions, so there isn’t much of an advantage to having a bonus one on your bench. You will always have a startable player at each of those positions available on waivers, so stashing one for a bye week is unnecessary.

Now, let’s do that same exercise with RBs. In our worst-case scenario, the other 11 teams are starting 3 RBs, and stashing an extra one on their bench. That’s 44 RBs that aren’t free agents. We need at least 2, maybe even 3 RBs this week. Our options are MUCH more limited than they were at those onesie positions. The dropoff in production for RBs is also much more substantial. The same can be said for WRs. So, that’s the first half of the argument:

In a worst-case scenario, you’ll still find worthwhile starters at the onesie positions, but you likely won’t find equally productive starters at RB or WR.

The second half of the argument is what I’ll call the “dibs” advantage. No matter what happens in the coming week, you know that the one player you have stashed on your bench is staying with you and no other team can take them away. Ask yourself, “What kind of asset do I MOST want my leaguemates to not have?”

Managers respond differently to a player’s “boom” week depending on which position they are. If a kicker or a D/ST has a great week, managers don’t generally go scrambling to the waiver wire to pick them up. Why? We missed it. Those positions don’t tend to be super consistent or predictable on a weekly basis. If they did well this week, that doesn’t increase their chances of being good next week. They just fluctuate based on matchups.

The same can be said—albeit, to a somewhat lesser extent—for TEs and QBs. Boom weeks can usually be attributed to good matchups or good luck. Every now and then, they can be the beginning of a positive trend for a player, but not often.

For WRs, boom weeks are much more indicative of future success. As fantasy managers, we do a pretty good job figuring out WHY a player did well. If the reason a player was successful is something that applies to future weeks, that player becomes a hot target. However, no other position has the propensity to be thrust into the spotlight more than RBs. One injury or coach’s decision is all it takes for an unrostered bust to become a waiver wire darling.

So given this information, which player would you call “dibs” on if you only had one bench spot? You want that bench spot to be used on a position that has the best shot at relevance in the coming weeks. That’s why I would argue that bench positions should be spent on RBs and WRs. More bench positions means more opportunities to call dibs on players.

Check out the podcast episode here.

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Photo attribution:

All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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.