Survivor Pool Strategy: How To Make The Smartest Picks In 2022
A lot of people think NFL survivor pools are straightforward games that all come down to luck. That belief couldn't be farther from the truth.
In fact, applying a sophisticated, data-driven pick strategy can nearly triple your expected winnings from survivor pools. We have the data to prove it.
Playing like a pro in survivor pools isn't easy, though. We'll give you the playbook, but whether you can stick to it and avoid the irrational biases that doom most survivor players is up to you.
Our Survivor Resume In Brief
At PoolGenius, we've studied sports pool strategy for nearly two decades. Our research led us to build the only product that customizes survivor pick advice based on your pool's size, rules, and the teams you have available to pick. (You can get a free trial here.)
Since 2017, our subscribers have reported over $3.7 million in survivor pool prizes. And last year, we published an 180-page E-book on survivor pool strategy.
Engineering an edge in survivor pools is our business, not just a hobby, and our approach has proven its value across thousands of real-world pools.
The Mindset Of A Skilled Survivor Pool Player
One constraint changes everything in NFL survivor pools. The fact that you can only pick a team once per season opens a Pandora's box of strategic complexity, because not all NFL teams and schedules are created equally. Make a poor decision now, and you'll likely pay for it later.
The good news is that over the long term, complicated games disproportionately benefit skilled players. Your opponents who don't understand optimal strategy will still get lucky now and then, but if you have the right mindset and the smartest analysis, you will eventually come out on top.
Have Reasonable Expectations
Over the last decade, over half of survivor pool entries have been eliminated by the end of NFL Week 4. That's not an average. It's happened in every single season for the past 10 years. And when a miraculous 59-yard field goal in the howling wind can spell the difference between survival and elimination, randomness can sink even the most thoroughly researched pick.
Playing like a pro in survivor pools therefore requires the recognition of two harsh realities:
1) The odds of winning any given pool, especially bigger pools, are stacked greatly against you. Even skilled players may not realize winnings for years or even decades, so patience is required.
2) You have no control over many things in survivor pools. When the safest pick can have a 1-in-5 (or greater) chance of losing, you must always be prepared for the team you picked to blow a 10-point fourth quarter lead and knock you out.
The one thing that is in your control is the ability to make the most advantageous pick every single week, and to stick to that process over the long term.
Expected Value Drives Pool Wins
You may be familiar with the concept of Closing Line Value (CLV) in sports betting. The premise of CLV is that if you consistently make bets at better odds than the closing line, your short-term results may fluctuate but you should win over time.
The survivor pool analog to CLV is EV, or Expected Value. EV encapsulates the primary risk vs. reward tradeoff at the heart of all survivor pick decisions:
- From a risk standpoint, you're always better off picking the team with the best chance to win.
- From a reward standpoint, you're almost always better off making an unpopular pick. (When you do, there's a chance that your pick wins while a popular pick loses. In that case, you survive the week while many other entries get eliminated, and your odds to win the pool skyrocket.)
In the long run, you should realize profits in survivor pools if you consistently make picks with positive Expected Value.
The Tension Between Safety and EV In Survivor Pools
Alas, there's always a rub. In survivor pools, the least risky teams are often the most popular picks, so we've got a conflict here.
To find the optimal solution, the math behind EV considers every possible combination of teams winning and losing. In some scenarios, your pick wins but you still don’t benefit much, because almost all of your opponents survive too. In other scenarios, you hit the jackpot when your pick wins and several popular picks you avoid all lose.
Based on all the win probabilities and pick popularities at play, and considering only the current week, picking the team with the highest EV will give your expected winnings from the pool the biggest boost. On balance, the top-EV pick offers the best combination or risk and reward.
As you can imagine, survivor pick EV isn't simple to calculate. That's a big reason why EV-driven picking is the biggest differentiator between the Pros and the Joes in survivor pools.
(It's also a big reason why we built our NFL Survivor Picks product. It not only calculates current-week EV for every team, but also adjusts EV calculations based on factors such as the size and rules of your pool, which influence the math.)
Evaluating Future Survivor Pick Paths
There's more to EV-driven picking than single-week analysis, though. What you really want to do is maximize EV over the course of the season, and doing that requires advance planning.
For example, the Chargers may end up being a solidly high-EV pick in Week 3 of 2022, when they are likely to be strong favorites hosting the Texans. But what if the EV of picking the Chargers in a future week projects to be even higher? Then you should seriously consider saving them, even if it requires taking a bit more risk in Week 3. (More on this situation later.)
You'll never have perfect information, but if you can do better than most of your survivor opponents at estimating both current week and future week EVs for every team, you've successfully established a long-term edge in survivor pools.
To pull this off, three data factors require your attention:
- Pick popularity: How you expect your opponents to pick.
- Win odds: How likely each team is to win.
- Future value: An estimate of a team's EV in future weeks.
Let’s review these three factors while providing some examples from last season. Then, we'll conclude with some thoughts about 2022.
Pick Popularity, and Why It Matters
A survivor pool is a zero-sum game. Your expected winnings from a pool increase when you survive a week and at least one other opponent entry gets eliminated.
Consequently, identifying the picks that stand to benefit you the most requires accurate estimates of pick popularity, for both the current week and for future weeks.
Several big survivor pool hosting sites publish aggregated pick popularity data, though every site has its quirks. (To mitigate that problem, our product combines data from multiple pool hosting sites into a more refined index of expected pick popularity.)
Opportunities to pick against the crowd without taking on much added elimination risk can carry tremendous value. It just takes work to find them, plus the courage to trust the numbers when it requires making a calculated gamble.
Survivor Case Study: Dallas Cowboys
The table below shows the win odds, pick popularity, and EV for the Dallas Cowboys in two consecutive weeks last season. (Note that an EV above 1.00 is good, because it indicates the pick will increase your expected pool winnings. An EV below 1.00 is bad.)
|Week||Matchup||Win Odds||Pick %||EV, Rank|
|9||DAL vs. DEN (+10)||79%||32%||0.97, 8th|
|10||DAL vs. ATL (+8)||77%||14%||1.04, 4th|
Dallas had similar win odds in both Week 9 and Week 10, but the value proposition for picking the Cowboys was much different. In Week 9, the Cowboys had an EV under 1.00. They were a decently safe pick but nowhere near a lock at under 80% win odds. They were also the most popular pick of the week at 32% popularity. Not a great combination.
In Week 10, Dallas was less than half as popular as in Week 9 and had an EV above 1.00. The Cowboys were slightly less likely to win in Week 10, but their overall combination of win odds and pick popularity was much more compelling.
Dallas lost to Denver in Week 9, then won in Week 10, delivering a big boost to players mindful of EV (and more importantly, helping those players avoid elimination in Week 9). Regardless of the result, though, picking Dallas in Week 9 likely wasn't a great call for most.
Win Odds, and Why Not All Popular Picks Are Bad
While you should often look to avoid teams that are very popular picks, that’s not a hard and fast rule to live by. The devil is in the details and every week is different. The right answer often depends on the risk profiles of the alternative, less popular picks available to you.
In survivor pools, it's crucial to evaluate pick safety in a comparative sense. The real question is, "How much does my chance of elimination go up if I pick this team, as opposed to picking the safest or most popular team of the week?" Those relative win odds are big drivers of EV.
Survivor Case Study: Cardinals, Bengals, and Titans, Oh My
Last season, the three most popular survivor picks, in terms of the percentage of entries picking them, were:
- Arizona in Week 7 (45%)
- Cincinnati in Week 8 (46%)
- Tennessee in Week 11 (42%)
Here is a breakdown of the win odds, popularity, and EV for those teams.
|Week||Matchup||Win Odds||Pick %||EV, Rank|
|7||ARI vs. HOU (+20.5)||92%||45%||1.07, 2nd|
|8||CIN at NYJ (+11.5)||81%||46%||0.92, 6th|
|11||TEN vs. HOU (+10.5)||79%||42%||0.93, 8th|
Arizona was the most frequent Week 7 recommendation we made to our subscribers, but we mostly faded Cincinnati in Week 8 and Tennessee in Week 11. Differing risk profiles were the primary reasons why.
Arizona only had an 8% chance of losing. Despite being a wildly popular pick, the Cardinals were extremely likely to advance your entry. In addition, nearly 40% of survivor entries nationwide were picking a team with less than 80% win odds in Week 7. That's a big step down in safety from Arizona's 92% win odds.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati in Week 8 and Tennessee in Week 11 were both around 2.5 times as likely to lose as Arizona was in Week 7. In addition, multiple teams in both Week 8 and Week 11 had win odds similar to, or only slightly lower than, Cincinnati and Tennessee.
As it turned out, Arizona won, while both Cincinnati and Tennessee lost. Weeks 8 and 11 were relative jackpots for players who avoided the Bengals and Titans and still managed to survive.
If your risk is not much greater than the crowd, but your potential upside is far higher, that's often a good situation to make a zinger of a contrarian pick. But sometimes the boring and obvious pick makes sense.
Considering Future Value
A lot of survivor players discount far-ahead pick planning because they believe things could look wildly different in a month or two. And yes, there's always a chance that a currently great team gets hit with a devastating QB injury, or a currently bad team suddenly turns a corner.
But winning more survivor pools requires playing the odds, not discounting opportunities entirely because they involve some uncertainty. The future is not completely unpredictable; a team that was expected to be good, and has been good, is likely to still be good in a month or two.
Forecasting a team's win odds and expected pick popularity in every future week can be difficult, but it's not impossible. If you don't have the skills or the time, you can outsource it to us.
Just remember that assessing a team's future value means projecting its EV, and not just identifying juicy matchups in later weeks. A worst case scenario can happen if you save a team for a future week, only to discover that many of your opponents did the same. In that case, sticking to your plan could be a negative-EV move.
In general, teams with the most future value tend to project as big favorites in multiple games throughout the season, but also have high pick popularity in an early week or two.
Players who overvalue safety, who don't understand EV, or who think the future is totally unpredictable will cash in on the "sure thing" early. When they do, it creates a scarce, high-value resource for later in the season.
Survivor Case Study: Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills were favored by a touchdown or more in 10 games last season. They were a double-digit favorite in seven different games.
Facing Houston in Week 4, the Bills were favored by 19 points, which ended up being the largest Buffalo spread of the season. The Bills hadn't been a huge favorite over the first three weeks, so most players had them available. 38% of the public ended up picking Buffalo.
Despite that sky-high pick popularity, Buffalo’s EV was still 1.14, thanks to their extremely high win odds. That was the best EV on the board in Week 4, and EV that high usually deserves a pick. However, Buffalo would have several future weeks with even better EV.
|Week||Matchup||Win Odds||Pick %||EV, Rank|
|18||BUF vs. NYJ (+16)||88%||6%||1.27, 1st|
|10||BUF vs. NYJ (+13.5)||85%||7%||1.20, 1st|
|9||BUF vs. JAX (+14.5)||88%||14%||1.19, 1st|
|8||BUF vs. MIA (+15)||88%||15%||1.17, 2nd|
|12||BUF vs. NO (+7)||70%||4%||1.17, 1st|
|4||BUF vs. HOU (+19)||91%||38%||1.14, 1st|
|17||BUF vs. ATL (+14.5)||87%||5%||1.14, 1st|
|15||BUF vs. CAR (+14)||85%||7%||1.13, 1st|
Although picking Buffalo in Week 4 would have been perfectly reasonable, the Bills offered more EV in five other later weeks. Those scenarios were made possible by the fact that nearly four out of 10 entries burned Buffalo in Week 4. Especially in bigger pools expected to last deep into the season, saving Buffalo (despite a nearly 20-point spread!) was probably the better call.
Notice also how Buffalo was the top EV pick of the week (per the "EV, Rank" column in the table above) in seven different weeks last season. That shows how making the smartest survivor pick isn't as simple as just picking the team with the highest current-week EV. That same team could be an even better "best pick" in a future week.
Looking Ahead to 2022
Now that we've reviewed some of the key principles of advanced survivor strategy, let's look ahead to a few strategy considerations for the first part of the 2022 season.
- In Week 1, four of the five biggest NFL favorites are playing on the road. That situation gives many survivor players pause, even though it shouldn't. At publication time, no team had higher than 20% nationwide pick popularity in Week 1, and home field advantage is a well-known factor already accounted for in betting odds. As a result, trusting betting odds and picking a road team could provide extra EV in Week 1, if the irrational "never pick road teams" crowd ends up taking some exceedingly risky gambles on slim home favorites.
- Buffalo again leads the way in our survivor future value estimates for 2022. The Bills have the highest expected season win total in the betting markets, are our highest power-rated team, and have multiple favorable matchups throughout the season. However, most of those matchups occur in Week 9 or later, which means that decisions on when to use Buffalo could be key factors in survivor pool outcomes this year.
- The LA Chargers, meanwhile, have our third-highest projected future value in 2022. Unlike the Bills, though, the Chargers’ schedule is front-loaded with their easiest games. We project LAC with at least 79% win odds in four different games by Week 9. After that point, they don't have a single game with projected win odds greater than 70%.
- In Week 3, the Chargers (vs. Jacksonville) were the largest projected favorite at publication time. Minnesota (vs. Detroit) and Cincinnati (at NY Jets) are the only other teams in Week 3 projected to have over 65% win odds, in what looks like a balanced week of matchups. The Chargers will likely be an extremely popular pick, which could in turn give them very high EV in several not-so-far-off weeks.
- For example, in Week 7, the Bengals (vs. Atlanta) and Raiders (vs. Houston) are likely to be very popular survivor picks. The Chargers (vs. Seattle) should have win odds similar to both of those teams, but much lower pick popularity. And in Week 9, the Chargers and Bills are currently the two largest projected favorites, but many entries will probably only have riskier options available. Whether you take extra risk in Week 3 to save the Chargers could be a key decision.
Ready To Take The Next Step?
If you learned something from this article, we invite you to check out our NFL Survivor Picks product.
It provides the data (e.g. betting market odds, algorithmic win probabilities, and pick popularity) and calculations (e.g. EV and future value) that you need to establish a long-term edge in survivor pools. In addition, it includes features like a Season Planner and an Optimal Path tool to help chart out your pick plan for the 2022 season.
It's also the only product available that customizes weekly pick recommendations based on a survivor pool's size and rules, two factors which can have big implications on strategy.
(For example, if you're in a big pool expected to last the entire season, or if you need to make double picks starting in Week 10, a team's future value is much more important to you.)
Finally, the product is designed to optimize a portfolio of up to 30 concurrent picks per week, whether those picks are in the same pool or across multiple pools. So if you're playing multiple entries, it will recommend the smartest way to split them up.
And thanks to our friends at Action Network, you can get a free trial for NFL Week 1.