A lack of NFL football, or football in general, is a terrible thing. But football is still hanging around, thanks to the USFL! And since DraftKings is offering DFS fantasy tournaments, it’s time to discuss the top plays and contrarian options so we can bink some USFL tournaments.
I’ll be going position by position, highlighting my favorite plays for tournaments, with a TL;DR included for those who don’t want to read my reasoning and just want the top-value plays. I’ll also include teams’ implied totals directly below, to help readers get a sense of the offenses Vegas thinks will put the most points on the board.
Birmingham Stallions (24.25) @ New Orleans Breakers (21.75)
Philadelphia Stars (19.0) @ Pittsburgh Maulers (20.0)
Houston Gamblers (23.25) @ Memphis Showboats (19.75)
Michigan Panthers (16.25) @ New Jersey Generals (23.25)
In the TL;DR, I’ll list out the top plays in order of value (according to me). This isn’t super strict, it does not factor in ownership, and in some cases, it’s sort of arbitrary. It also doesn’t matter nearly as much as my readers think it does. What does matter is maximizing the correlations within your lineups, and making sure you include at least a few players on each tournament team who should be on the lower end of ownership (I highlight a few in my write-ups). Get creative!
Plays ranked in order, with tier 1 in bold, and assumes notable questionable players suit up…
QB: Cole Kelley, Alex McGough, Kenji Bahar, Case Cookus, Troy Williams, McLeod Bethel-Thompson
RB: Wes Hills, Juwan Washington, Mark Thompson, Matt Colburn, Darrius Victor, CJ Marable, Reggie Corbin, Ezra Gray, Madre London
WR/TE: Johnnie Dixon, Derrick Dillon, Justin Hall, Isiah Hennie, Trey Quinn, Bailey Gaither, Corey Coleman, Joe Walker, Davion Davis, Devin Gray, Diondre Overton, Vinny Papale, Jace Sternberger, Warren Newman, Tre Walker
Alex McGough ($12,100): No USFL QB can match McGough’s consistency, as he’s scored at least 17.2 DraftKings points in every start while averaging a very impressive 23.3 DraftKings FPG over the full season (51% better than the next-closest QB).
McGough’s fantasy prowess largely stems from his rushing, as the 50.3 rushing YPG he averages ranks only behind Troy Williams (53.3) among QBs, and he’s exceeded 75 rushing in each of his last two games. Combine that with an offense that offers the league’s highest implied team total (24.25) in the best scoring environment (46.0), and it’s clear why he will be viewed as an easy click industry-wide.
Sure, price is an obvious issue. But McGough’s TD equity is far and away the best on the slate – partially due to his rushing but also thanks to Birmingham’s league-leading 64% pass rate in the red zone (8% higher than Philadelphia and 21% higher than the league average).
And it gets even easier to justify McGough’s salary once you factor in that his benching risk is zero. There are maybe two other QBs in the USFL you can say that about, and none of them come close to matching McGough’s raw fantasy value. He’s the top QB play of the week.
Cole Kelley ($9,000): Kelley feels as though he could yet again go under-owned despite one of the best matchups on the slate – as Houston is allowing by far the league’s highest pass rate (68%) and the most passing YPG (232.3).
Kelley’s starting role appears quite secure (he has played every snap for four straight games), meaning he’s one of the few QBs on the slate we can consider relatively “safe.” And the Showboats’ 71% neutral-situation pass rate since Week 3 suggests passing volume won’t be an issue.
Kelley is probably the 2nd-best QB play of the slate. You can (rightfully) doubt his upside (less than 14.2 DraftKings points in each of his last two games) – but those down games came against two of the league’s best pass defenses. The last time Kelley played Houston, he threw for 307 passing yards (the most by a QB this season) and 2 TDs. I really like Kelley in larger field tournaments, and I think he has plenty of merit in smaller tournaments as a contrarian option.
Kenji Bahar ($8,300): Bahar is an intriguing pay-down option at QB this week, given his matchup with Memphis – a defense allowing the league’s 2nd-highest pass rate (63%), along with the 2nd-most passing YPG (221.5), and the 2nd-most YPA (6.9). The matchup is near-perfect, and the game environment (43.0 total) suggests this is the 2nd-best game to target on the slate.
Bahar’s price is tempting, but there is a major problem with him as a play this week. Houston has posted the league’s lowest pass rate since Week 3 (51%), and by far the lowest red zone pass rate (26%) in that stretch. Houston’s TD equity is dominated by RB Mark Thompson, which severely caps Bahar’s ceiling (Bahar hasn’t exceeded 20.5 DraftKings points across five games).
Bahar is still one of the stronger QB plays on the slate, especially once we factor in price and ownership. Maybe the great matchup is enough to overcome Houston’s run-heavy scheme, but I have my doubts, so I’ll likely keep my Bahar exposure limited across the board.
Weighted Opportunity through 6 weeks:
Wes Hills ($12,500): Hills continues to be one of the greatest bell cows of the last decade. In the five games he’s earned a touch, he’s recorded 25.4, 28.4, 32.1, 19.0, and 21.1 weighted opportunity points. Among USFL RBs, he’s earned five of the top-10 workloads of the season. And he’s earning the 2nd-best workload among all professional RBs since at least 2011, just behind 2019 Christian McCaffrey (25.5 WO/G) and just ahead of 2017 Le’Veon Bell (25.0 WO/G).
The usage is all-time great, but the production has been too. Hills is averaging 29.4 DraftKings FPG across the season – a mark that ranks 6th-best among professional football RBs since 2000.
Top RB fantasy seasons by DraftKings FPG since 2000:— Jake Tribbey (@JakeTribbey) May 25, 2023
1. 2000 Marshall Faulk (34.1 DK FPG)
2. 2002 Priest Holmes (33.7)
3. 2006 LaDainian Tomlinson (32.0)
4. 2001 Marshall Faulk (31.5)
5. 2019 Christian McCaffrey (31.0)
6. 2023 WES HILLS (29.4)
7. 2003 LaDainian Tomlinson (29.2)
You could argue against Hills on the basis of price and astronomically high ownership, especially after he failed to exceed 16.0 DraftKings points these last two weeks. And I do think you can get away from Hills in the largest tournament on the slate, but this is usage and production that I’d consider unfadable in smaller fields and cash games. He’s the easiest click of the slate at RB.
Mark Thompson ($12,200): Thompson has been right behind Hills as the league’s premier bell cow, granted he’s still notably behind Hills in weighted opportunity (17.6 WO/G). But even with ~30% worse usage, Thompson has only been 9% less productive as he’s managed incredible efficiency (5.2 YPC, 3rd-best), especially in the red zone (36% red zone TD rate).
It’s easy to argue that Thompson is overpriced relative to Hills, which should be clearly reflected in ownership. But I still really like Thompson as a play this week, given the game environment (43.0 total, 2nd-highest), likely positive gamescript (Houston is favored by 3.5 points), and matchup (Memphis is allowing the most total YPG).
We can view Thompson as the ownership-discounted version of Wes Hills. Sure, Hills (5.8 targets per game) has more juice as a receiver than Thompson (2.8), but Houston’s league-high 71% rush rate in the red zone gives Thompson the best TD equity at the position. Expect both players to be massively popular, but Thompson is the play for those worried about Hills’ ownership.
Matt Colburn ($7,000): It’s incredibly difficult to argue for any mid-range RBs this week, as the highest-priced rushers are some of the best we’ve ever seen in spring football, and Juwan Washington offers awesome usage at the minimum price. Because of these elite options, nearly every RB priced between $5,500 and $8,000 will see minimal ownership.
You could argue for quite a few mid-priced RBs based on ownership, but Matt Colburn is my preference for Week 7. He earned a season-high 77% of backfield-weighted opportunity last week, translating to 14.9 WO/G over the full season (4th-best). And remember, this is a player who averaged 23.0 DraftKings FPG over his final five games last season, so the upside is there.
We can capture Colburn’s solid usage at ~5% ownership, but the only problem is the objectively terrible matchup. Pittsburgh is allowing just 75.7 rushing YPG (toughest) and 2.6 rushing YPC (toughest by 0.8) – so Colburn will need TDs and receiving work to get there in tournaments. I still think that’s possible, given he ranks top-5 in both targets per game (3.8) and red zone rushes (13). He’s far from the top RB play of the slate, but he should at least be considered by those making five or more lineups in the largest GPP of the slate.
Juwan Washington ($4,000): Washington offers much-needed salary relief at RB, and I’d suspect he’ll gain some popularity because of the unique builds that enables. In Week 6, Washington earned the 3rd-highest percentage of backfield weighted opportunity (78%), suggesting he’s the bell cow in this Memphis backfield until Kerrith Whyte returns to the lineup.
I don’t expect good efficiency for Washington (3.1 YPC this season), but I do expect him to handle close to 20 touches at the minimum RB salary, which is enough to make him the top value RB on the slate.
Justin Hall ($8,200): Hall has been the clear top option in the Houston passing attack, earning a league-leading 31% target share on top of 4 red zone targets (5th-best), and 67.0 receiving YPG (best) since Week 2. One could argue that Hall is the most valuable fantasy WR in the USFL, and his DraftKings FPG (15.6, 1st) certainly backs that up.
Hall isn’t a secret, and I’d expect him to be popular, but I still love the spot with Memphis allowing 221.8 passing YPG (2nd-most) and 6.9 YPA (2nd-most). When these teams last played in Week 3, Hall went nuclear with two TDs and 27.0 DraftKings points. He’s a comparably-great play to Isiah Hennie among the expensive pass catchers, but I do give a slight lean to Hennie in smaller field tournaments as I view him as a higher-floor player.
Isiah Hennie ($8,000): Pittsburgh has posted the 2nd-highest pass rate (66%) since Week 4, and Hennie has led the league in targets (24) and receiving yards (202) over that span. He’s been remarkable after the catch, having caught just one deep pass over that stretch. It’s relatively safe to declare Hennie one of the top WRs in the USFL with the way he’s played these last few weeks.
That will be reflected in ownership, but I’m still more than willing to roster Hennie, thanks to his outstanding target floor (at least 7 targets in four of his last five games). He’s arguably the safest bet among the expensive WRs this week.
Trey Quinn ($5,100): Quinn is one of the only mid-priced players worthy of consideration this week, largely due to his excellent target volume as of late (25 targets since Week 3 – 8th most). But Quinn isn’t just a target hog, he’s also earning an exceptionally high percentage (36%) of Michigan’s deep targets since Week 3 (4th-best).
I’m not anxious to play Michigan Panthers this week given their pathetic 16.25 implied team total, but Quinn is the guy I want as he should be the biggest beneficiary from negative gamescript. He’s a top value this week, granted not nearly as strong of a value as Derrick Dillon or Johnnie Dixon.
Derrick Dillon ($3,800): Dillon finally had a solid game (15.1 DraftKings points) in Week 6, but I still think he’s barely scratching the surface of his true fantasy potential. Dillon ranks 12th in targets (21) and 2nd in deep targets (9) since Week 3 – presenting obvious value at his WR21 price tag.
Watching the games has shown that Dillon is one of the most explosive players in the USFL, and he’s caught just 22% of his deep targets this season, falling below 6.5 DraftKings points in every game but one this season. Dillon only needs one or two deep catches to massively pay off his salary, and those deep catches should come this week against a Houston defense that’s allowed the most passing YPG (232.3) this season. He’s a top-2 value at WR this week – but he offers a lower floor than similarly-priced Johnnie Dixon.
Johnnie Dixon ($3,600): Dixon is one of the easiest free squares in the history of spring football DFS. He averages 8.3 targets per game and 11.8 DraftKings FPG in his three healthy games, marks that rank 1st and 5th among WRs. So why is Dixon priced as the WR23 on DraftKings in the highest-total game of the slate? I genuinely have no idea.
This is a pricing error that we need to take advantage of. The field failed to account for the massive salary discount on Dixon last week, leading to just 40% ownership. I’d suspect he’s much more popular in Week 7, but you could easily argue he should be at least 90% owned, and I don’t think the field will come close to being that aggressive. He’s the closest thing to a free square we’ve seen this season (if you exclude Week 6 Dixon).
Warren Newman ($3,000): Newman has only been active since Week 5, but he asserted himself in a big way last week with a 17% target share (12th-best among all players) and 55 receiving yards (6th).
Newman reminds me a lot of last year’s MVP, KaVontae Turpin. He’s not as good as Turpin was, but he provides the New Jersey offense with a much-needed explosive slot WR who can make people miss in the open field. Since the New Jersey offense operated so well with Turpin in that role last year, I’d expect Newman’s involvement to only grow.
The best part? There are objectively better options among the low-priced WRs, meaning Newman’s ownership should be sub-5%. He’s an outstanding tournament play in large-field contests, and you won’t need to roster him on many teams to gain a ton of leverage.