StrategyNovember 16, 2006

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How do you know who to start?
The key factors in determining who to start and bench each week.

By Matt Blevins

This question is probably the most difficult part of fantasy football: Who do I start and who do I sit this week? You can draft a fantastic team, but unless you answer this question correctly a majority of the time, your team will never perform to its full potential. This article will take a look at the thought processes I use when determining who to start and sit from my team each week. The things I consider are: matchup, opportunity, recent performance, and scoring system.


Players’ matchups are the first thing every fantasy football owner looks at each week. It may seem like an obvious statement that you should look at each player’s matchup as a factor, but it is equally important to know what to look at in determining what a good matchup or a back matchup is. The factors to consider are: level of opposing defense, fantasy points given up by that defense, injuries to players from both teams, and the location of the game.

Level of Opposing Defense

The first major thing to look at is the most obvious: how good is this defense? This of course includes looking at the level of pass defense for QBs, WRs, and TEs and the level of run defense for RBs. Maybe what’s less obvious is also looking at the how good they are against the run for QBs, WRs, and TEs and how good they are at defending the pass for RBs in comparison to how well your player’s team offensively performs at those positions. To clarify what I mean, here is an example: If your QB is up against a good pass defense, but his team has a weak running game, your QB may perform well even against the good pass defense because of the inability to run which would force your QB to make more plays through the air. This can work the other way too and make it more difficult to pass, but you simply need to make a judgment on that based on how good the player in question is.

The important thing to remember about looking at defensive match ups is that it is normally best to look at the last 3-4 games that defense has played rather than looking at their season production as a whole. Some defenses will play very well at the start of the year (i.e. San Diego, Kansas City) and start to play worse for various reasons and some defenses start off slower (i.e. NYG, New England) and start to play better at some point. How a defense is playing now trumps how they may have played at the beginning of the year.

Fantasy Defense

Something neglected many times by owners is how many fantasy points a defense normally gives up to the position in question. This is usually most important for positions such as WR and TE because they are normally the most inconsistent positions and have fewer every week must starts. Knowing that Team A gives up more fantasy points than Team B could end up making the matchup against Team A better than Team B even if Team B has a better “real” defense. This shouldn’t necessarily trump the value of the actual defense in question, as they are definitely connected, but most certainly should be taken into consideration.


Another aspect of the matchup that needs consideration is injuries both for the player in question’s team and for the opposing team’s defense and offense. Injuries on your player’s team and the opposing team’s defense are more obvious because a key defensive lineman, linebacker, or defensive back missing from the opposing defense can make a big difference on how good the matchup becomes as well as a QB missing his top receiving option lowers his value as well.

The idea less thought about is key players missing from the opposing team’s offense. The real big positions to think about when considering this are the QB and RB positions. A missing QB or RB who is one of the better offensive players on that team can end up resulting in turnovers or good field position, which will give your offensive player better opportunities to score. Although this is a factor that can be depended on much less than the defense missing a key player, it can be a factor nonetheless.


The last, and one of the most important factors to consider, as far as the matchup is concerned, is where the game is going to be played and in what conditions. Some teams and players just perform much better at home than on the road and so even with tougher matchups at home, they still warrant heavy consideration. One of the biggest problems can be the weather conditions for the game. An extremely windy day, for example, can result in very poor passing from both teams and could mean big day for defenses and running games and the same can go for an extremely rainy day. This is a big factor in deciding whether to start a kicker- especially if you get penalized for missed kicks- because a very windy day can really hurt a kicker’s production.


The second factor to consider when deciding who you should start and bench is opportunity. This includes things such as what kind of game will be played and the amount of touches the player will get.

The type of game that will be played means predicting whether you think the game in question will be more of a low scoring, defensive battle, a high scoring shootout, a blowout, or somewhere in the middle. A low scoring game normally favors RBs for both teams because in a closer game teams are able to run the ball more often because there is little pressure to pass and score a lot of points. A high scoring shootout, on the other hand, very much favors the QBs, WRs, and TEs for both of the teams and normally will hurt the RB production significantly unless the RB is a large part of the passing game. A blowout type game will obviously favor the team blowing out the other team. It favors the RBs (starting and backup) because once most teams are ahead they will run the ball almost exclusively. But, the other positions can end up benefiting as well if a lot of points are scored. The team being blown out’s QB and WRs can end up benefiting as well because they will be playing from behind. There is also the risk of simply being overwhelmed by the opposing defense.

The number of touches speaks to how many opportunities each game the player in question has the chance to perform. This means pass attempts (or rushing ability) for QBs, rush attempts and receptions for RBs, as well as looks and receptions for WRs and TEs. Some players are able to perform on fewer touches, but a QB on a pass heavy team (i.e. Philadelphia) will have more attempts each game and therefore have a higher chance of getting more yardage and TDs. A RB who gets 20-25 touches per game will often perform more consistently than a RB in a platoon system who only gets 10-15 touches per game (there are always exceptions, talent must be taken into consideration as well). For WRs and TEs, the amount of times the QB looks their way is very important because if a QB tends to look to a certain WR or TE, they will have more opportunities to rack up fantasy points.

Recent Performance

This category needs to be broken up into 2 sub-categories: recent actual performance and recent fantasy performance. This is one of the more important parts of deciding who to start and sit because recent performance is the best indicator of future performance. This does not mean that you ignore how they have done collectively over the season, but how they have done in the past 3-4 weeks is the most pertinent to how they will do the next week.

Actual Performance

This area may seem unrelated to fantasy production and in many ways it is, but it does have some uses for the fantasy manager. For example, it is possible to have a player who is getting plenty of yardage but very few TDs. This is very good for the player’s actual team, but not quite as good for fantasy purposes. If this player is one who normally scores TDs but he just happened to not get into the end zone in certain weeks, it should be taken into consideration. This is important for QBs especially because a player can be performing solidly for fantasy purposes (i.e. Kurt Warner) while his team is struggling and not winning games. This could lead to the player being benched, which makes it important to pay attention to this aspect of the player’s performance.

Fantasy Performance

This point is certainly the most obvious one: play the guys who are playing well. It seems obvious, yet it is amazing how many people second-guess the players who may have slightly tougher match ups but are playing exceptionally well. This consideration can’t overrule all the other factors, but it should figure strongly in your decision. If the decision is very close between two players in the other areas, this category makes for a good tie-breaker. The biggest reason for this is because most players (with the exception of the elite) are very streaky and tend to continue their previous weeks’ performance, be it strong or weak.

Scoring System

The last thing to take into account is your league’s scoring system. With so many different scoring systems, it is impossible to rely on any one site to give you the exact rankings you should follow. In leagues that are TD heavy for example, guys like Tiki Barber have significantly less value because they don’t get into the end zone much, while guys like Brandon Jacobs and Marion Barber start to have quite a bit of value. You need to know your scoring system so well that you can look at how a player is doing and realize what his risk vs. reward will be. A good system of seeing who the high risk or lower risk along with high reward vs. low reward can be found in the Start & Sit feature here at the Cafe.

Overall, the key is to remember that you shouldn’t blindly trust any website’s player rankings and/or predictions from week to week. Most websites’ rankings are far too influenced by one big week and for the most part they are done by one person. I like the Café’s Start & Sit because it it takes 5 people’s opinions into account.

The above rules do not apply to the sort of players that you start each week no matter the matchup (i.e. Peyton Manning, LaDainian Tomlinson).

Although going on a gut feeling isn’t an exact way to predict performance, a lot of times it will help you make tough decisions. You may not be very happy if you choose incorrectly, but you will feel better every time if you went with your gut and were wrong than if you didn’t. Many times, just asking someone who you trust for fantasy advice what they think can be a big help because the toughest team to choose who to start is your own, I would encourage you to find someone to bounce ideas off of and when in doubt, go with your gut!

Matt Blevins is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Matt in the Cafe's forums where he gives advice on your start/bench questions and posts under the name of mattb47.
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