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Play Cam Newton, Burn All Your Money: A 10-Point Essay

This is the 156th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation.

It’s Week 4 of the 2017 NFL season. I’m in the middle of writing the positional breakdowns. It’s Wednesday night, which is the worst time for me to divert attention away from these mandatory pieces — so I’m going to write a Labyrinthian.

Cam Newton Is the Worst Quarterback Ever

Earlier today I posted a tweet about Cam Newton and his Week 4 matchup . . .

. . . and then I spent the rest of my day remembering that I suck at Twitter. In this piece I want to discuss my thought process regarding Newton. And, more importantly, I want to use this as an opportunity to revisit the concept of positive expected value.

What Follows Is a Random List

Since I’m pounding this article out faster than Jonathan Bales engulfs beers at a Broathalon, I’m just going to list random thoughts/factors in no particular order.

1. Renee Miller ‘Likes’ Newton

On the Week 4 Daily Fantasy Flex, Renee Miller (one of the best thinkers in the industry) had this to say about Cam:

We just talked about how terrible Cam Newton is, but we also talked about how susceptible the Patriots defense has been. This will hinge a lot on whether Kelvin Benjamin practices and plays this week, but I think Cam Newton’s going to be very low-owned with a high total playing from behind in all likelihood, and certainly — I mean, we know him — he can be very, very effective. I mean, no one would be shocked if he had a five-touchdown game.

It’s worth noting that we talked about Newton as a pivot play for guaranteed prize pools. No one is talking about Newton in cash games. We’re talking about him as a potential Black Swan. Also, if Renee brings someone up, that person is worth thinking about in more detail. When betting, you want to be with the smart money. In daily fantasy sports, you want to be with the sharp players. Renee is sharp.

2. Newton Is Discounted

As I mention in the Week 4 quarterback breakdown, Newton has never been cheaper on DraftKings or FanDuel than he is now. Newton is currently $5,900 DraftKings and $7,300 FanDuel. Before this week, Newton had never been cheaper than $6,100 and $7,600. Newton has historically done well when discounted:

  • $7,000 and under (DraftKings): 21.53 points per game (PPG), +3.25 Plus/Minus, 59.1 percent Consistency Rating, 5.0 percent ownership rate
  • $8,000 and under (FanDuel): 20.00 PPG, +3.25 Plus/Minus, 63.6 percent Consistency Rating, 4.1 percent ownership rate

In general, it’s smart to buy at a discount — especially when a player is likely to have low ownership — and we’re projecting Newton for low ownership in our Models.

3. Newton Has Sucked This Year

Newton has been horrible in 2017, averaging 12.41 fantasy PPG with -6.86 DraftKings and -5.71 FanDuel Plus/Minus values while failing to hit his salary-based expectations in each game. On top of that, the Panthers haven’t hit their implied Vegas totals in a game, and they have an abysmal -10.25 Vegas Plus/Minus. Newton’s been bad, and the Panthers as a whole haven’t done much to help him.

4. Newton Is Injured

It’s possible/probable that Newton has been so bad this year because he’s injured. Newton’s March 30th shoulder surgery limited his ability to participate in training camp and preseason games, and so he’s opened the season with a fair amount of rust. On top of that, he’s been injured. His shoulder issues have limited his ability to practice during the week, and last week he also dealt with an ankle issue. He’s on the Week 4 injury report, but the Panthers are no longer listing the ankle, and he at least got in a limited practice on Wednesday. Still, Newton’s not playing at full strength.

5. Newton Is Running Less

In the first five years of his career (2011-15), Newton had 7.7 rushing attempts per game; last year, 6.0; this year, 4.7. Head coach Ron Rivera has said that Newton’s workload as a runner has been deliberately curtailed. Considering that Newton has the most all-time rushing touchdowns for a quarterback at 49, it’s significant that his rushing volume has been reduced.

6. Newton’s Teammates Are Injured

Greg Olsen is on Injured Reserve with a foot injury. That hurts, as he’s led the Panthers in receptions and yards receiving in each of the last four seasons with 1,000-yard campaigns in the past three. And Benjamin suffered a serious-looking knee injury in Week 3, but he avoided any structural damage and is now reportedly day to day. He didn’t practice on Wednesday, but he did wear pads, stretch with the team, and ride the stationary bike. If K-Benjy can’t play that will hurt Newton’s odds of success — but that will also lower his ownership.

In 2015, Newton was the NFL Most Valuable Player while Benjamin missed the entire season with an ACL tear. He can succeed without Benjamin. It’s suboptimal for him to be without Olsen, but it’s possible that running back Christian McCaffrey could take a lot of the short receiving work that would’ve gone to Olsen: McCaffrey leads Carolina with a 25.8 percent target share.

7. McCaffrey = Strength on Weakness

McCaffrey is already one of the most dynamic pass-catching backs in the league. Through three games he has caught 78.3 percent of his 23 targets for 173 yards. He’s pacing for 122.7 targets, 96 receptions, and 922.7 yards receiving. His rushing production has disappointed (25 attempts for 73 yards) but McCaffrey looks a lot like rookie Reggie Bush minus the touchdowns — and those will come, maybe even in Week 4.

The Panthers are +9.0 road underdogs against the Patriots, who this year have allowed top-two fantasy marks to opposing backfields with 33.9 DraftKings and 29.8 FanDuel PPG. On top of that, only the Saints have allowed more yards receiving to running backs than New England’s 253, and no team has allowed more receiving touchdowns to running backs than their two. Last year the Pats were 22nd in pass defense against running backs in Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average. This year they’re 28th.

The Panthers are likely to have a pass-heavy game script for much of the contest, and many targets could be funneled to McCaffrey, who last week had 11. Given that McCaffrey is Newton’s most dynamic pass-catching weapon and the Patriots are weak at defending running backs in the passing game, this could be a week to use our Lineup Builder to make Newton-McCaffrey stacks.

It’s possible — not probable, but possible — that McCaffrey could turn some short receptions into long touchdowns.

8. Newton Has a Good Matchup

This season the Patriots are having foreseen defensive issues. They are thin at pass rusher, and as a result opposing quarterbacks have destroyed a secondary that hasn’t lived up to its billing. The Patriots have only six sacks on the season, and they’re allowing the second most adjusted yards per attempt at 9.7. No team has allowed more than their 992 yards and eight touchdowns through the air. No team has been more generous to fantasy quarterbacks than the Pats, who have allowed 28.1 DraftKings and 25.1 FanDuel PPG.

It’s true that Drew Bress at the Coors Field of fantasy football was one of the quarterbacks to face the Patriots, but the other two passers to tear them up were the mild-mannered Alex Smith and inexperienced Deshaun Watson — in Foxborough. There’s no denying that there are legitimate reasons to fear Newton: The odds are high that he will be horrible against the Patriots. But we also shouldn’t let Newton’s recent form — and especially his poor Week 3 performance at home against the Saints — blind us to the benevolence of his matchup.

That’s right: I used the word “benevolence.” His matchup is that #good.

9. Newton = Arbitrage

Last year I wrote a piece about DFS arbitrage, which is the act of trading the spread between a player’s odds of success and a player’s ownership percentage. In Week 4, Newton represents (I believe) an opportunity for arbitrage.

What do you think are the odds that Newton is successful enough this week to be in a GPP-winning lineup? SPOILER ALERT: I think those odds are higher than his current ownership projection. In fact, given my Twitter mentions, it’s possible that his ownership projection is even too high.

Here’s a theoretical exercise: Let’s say that Newton has an ownership rate of 1-2 percent this weekend. And let’s say that — given his long-term NFL production, his matchup, and the randomness that can occasionally drive an event-based sport — Newton has 5-6 percent odds of being in a winning GPP lineup. (With 24 quarterbacks in the main slate, all of them have theoretical 4.17 percent odds before adjustments are made.) Now, the spread between his 1-2 percent ownership rate and 5-6 percent odds of being a GPP-winning quarterback mean that the field is way too low on Newton. It means that the people who are optimally weighted on Newton have gained leverage of anywhere from 150 percent to 500 percent on the market.

Just to be clear: Whatever Newton’s odds are, they are still low. That’s not what matters. What matters is the spread between his low odds of success and his even lower ownership rate. His odds of success matter only insofar as they impact the spread, but they on their own do not actually matter. My sense is that too many people who fade Newton this weekend will think too much about his odds of success and not enough about how the rest of the market is likely to value those odds — and that’s what makes Newton arbitrageable.

In almost any predictive endeavor, people overvalue what’s likely to happen. They’ll treat something that has a 94-95 percent probability of occurring as if it has a 98-99 percent probability. It is highly probable that Newton will fail this weekend. Given that likelihood, many people will likely be 100 percent off of Newton. If they do that with purpose, that’s fine. It’s a legitimate strategy. At some point DFS players have to take a stand, and it’s hard to argue with a full-on fade of an injured guy on the road playing without possibly the two players with whom he’s most correlated (Benjamin and Olsen). I have total respect for the well-reasoned Newton fade.

If, though, DFS players fade Newton without fully considering the spread between his ownership rate and odds of success, then (in the long run) they’re likely to lose money.

10. Newton Is +EV

What I’ve been driving at is the concept of expected value. Even if Newton sucks in Week 4, getting some measured exposure to him in GPPs is probably a +EV move. It’s not enough to think about just the odds of being right or wrong. You also need to think about the various outcomes — and that’s especially the case in GPPs, which have top-heavy payout structures.

A perusal of GPP lineups reveals the extent to which week-winning rosters often feature low-owned players with upside — players who were arbitrageable: Players who were +EV. These low-owned high-upside players are the keys to GPPs. In any given instance, they’re likely not to yield profit. In the aggregate, however, over a larger sample, their tactical inclusion in your lineups will enhance your odds of DFS success.

In other words, expect Newton to fail this weekend . . . and invest in him anyway (as long as you think his odds of success are greater than 2-4 percent). In a worst-case scenario, just think of it like this: He provides leverage on Tom Brady, who’s likely to be one of the highest-owned quarterbacks in the slate. And who doesn’t love leverage on the chalk quarterback?

Back to the Positional Breakdowns

When Newton self-immolates this weekend on the Alter of Angry Tom, please for the love of the fantasy gawds don’t come at me on Twitter. I know Newton’s a low probability play: In part, that’s why he has GPP-winning upside.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to start writing some bad running back takes.


The Labyrinthian: 2017.61, 156

Previous installments can be accessed via my author page or the series archive.