DFS Strategy: How to Attack the Tight End Position (Fantasy Football)

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Over the last two weeks, we’ve rolled out our 2021 DFS strategy series, and to this point, I’ve hit on how to attack the QB position, how to attack the RB position and how to attack the WR position in DFS. Next up, let’s take a deeper look at how to attack the tight end position in DFS. Kyle and I discussed this concept in more detail on the DFS Podcast a couple of weeks ago. Be sure to check out that episode for a more detailed conversation on how to approach each position and gain an edge in DFS.

In general, Kyle and I prescribe to one of two strategies when looking at the TE position in DFS: Pay up for one of the elite guys or spend down to save salary and avoid the dumpster fires that are the mid range tight ends. This article will primarily be dedicated to understanding why these strategies are optimal and how to implement them in cash games and tournaments.

Avoid The Mid Range Tight Ends

Before we discuss this in more detail, it’s important to define what ‘mid-range’ tight end means. It’s a rather subjective definition, but for the sake of this article, let’s consider mid-range tight ends those that are priced on a weekly basis between $4,000 and $5,500 on DraftKings. For reference, the stone minimum on DraftKings is $2,500 while the most expensive tight end in DraftKings history was Travis Kelce priced at $8,500 in Week 16 last year against the Falcons.

In the data set below, I looked at 10 different tight ends whose season-long average salary fell between in this $4K to $5.5K price range. Below is each player who fell in this range and their season-long average salary on DraftKings:

Player Average Weekly Salary
Dallas Goedert $4,245
Hunter Henry $4,528
Mike Gesicki $4,581
Noah Fant $4,625
Evan Engram $4,575
Jonnu Smith $4,268
T.J. Hockenson $4,913
Robert Tonyan $3,967
Hayden Hurst $4,206
Eric Ebron $4,173

Next, I had my buddy Matt DiSorbo plot the average weekly salary for these tight ends against their average DraftKings points per game. The trend line here isn’t pretty.

Here are my biggest takeaways from this data:

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  • For mid-range TEs, a more expensive TE does not necessarily mean he’ll put up more fantasy points than one that’s cheaper. In fact, the data seems to suggest the opposite is true – the more expensive TEs in this data set performed worse on average than the cheap guys.
  • There’s no upside in this range – Eric Ebron, Hayden Hurst, Mike Gesicki, Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson, Irv Smith and Dallas Goedert all scored between 7.5 and 9 DraftKings points on a weekly basis.
  • Don’t get too excited about Robert Tonyan as the argument for mid-range TEs. He caught a TD on 21% of his receptions last year at an unsustainable rate and even his 11 TD on 52 receptions still only helped him score about 10 DraftKings points per game.

My best advice here is that we know there’s very little separation between TEs priced in this range, and as a result, we probably shouldn’t be jamming these guys into our DFS lineups. Knowing this, why would we opt for the more expensive player when we can get very similar production from tight ends who are priced towards the bottom of this range or those who are even cheaper than $4K?

Furthermore, what if one of the players in a given week is the TE play of the week and becomes chalky? Given that we know a) the separation between these players is minimal to non-existent on average and b) these players are unlikely to bury us if we don’t play them, it makes sense to fade tight ends with a high projected roster percentage in this range.

The Argument for Punting the Tight End Position

When looking at fantasy scoring last season, DraftKings salary at the tight end position had a correlation coefficient of just .409. This may seem decent on the surface, but when you look at how salary correlates to fantasy scoring across other positions, it’s by far the lowest of all skill positions, as QBs (.556), RBs (.479), and WRs (.462) all correlate more strongly to salary. As we’ve already established in the section above, just because a tight end is more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll score more fantasy points than a cheaper tight end…unless your name is Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, or George Kittle.

Knowing that salary isn’t a strong predictor of fantasy success and the mid-priced group doesn’t seem to separate at the position, should we be punting the position and saving our salary to spend elsewhere?

To answer this question, I think it makes sense to look at setting DFS lineups from a point per dollar expensive. After all, we only have $50,000 to spend in salary across our entire lineup. Because of this, we should be looking to maximize value whenever possible, especially in cash games. We already know it’s advantageous to spend up on quarterbacks and we want to play the workhorse RBs who are expensive. In order to accomplish this, we’ve got to cut salary somewhere in our lineups, and based on the fact that salary correlation to fantasy points is the weakest at TE, it seems like we should at least consider spending down at the TE position when we’re not trying to get up to the three elite TEs. By “punting” the TE position, we’re able to spend up at other positions in our lineups that we know are the true difference makers in DFS.

How To Identify a Punt Tight End

Each week on the DFS Podcast, Kyle and I try to identify the punt tight ends in our player pool for a given week, so you’ll want to be sure to tune in each week. But before we discuss how to identify a good punt play at TE, let’s first define what that means in terms of salary allocation. DraftKings’ cheapest player in the player pool is $2500, while on FanDuel, the cheapest player is $4000. In general, we’re looking at guys priced between $2500 and $3900 on DraftKings and between $4000 and $5000 on FanDuel.

Getty Images / Quinn Harris

So now that we know the salary range to look for on these two sites, how do we go about choosing a punt TE? I’d recommend asking yourself these questions?

  • Can he find the end zone? If a TE this cheap hits pay dirt, he will 2x his salary at a minimum, automatically giving us a leg up on the competition if we get the rest of our lineup correct. Predicting TDs is difficult to do, but using end zone targets can be a great way to look for players who are at least being thrown the ball close to the goal line. Similarly, we should be looking for offenses who throw when they get close to the goal line.
  • Is this tight end running routes? This is a bit obvious, but we don’t to be rostering cheap TEs who are out there blocking. These guys have to be running routes if we want them to see targets in the passing game.
  • Can you use them in a game stack? The Vegas Report article in the DFS Pass identifies games that feature the best stacking environment for a fantasy-friendly shootout where we can expect more points to be scored. Based on FantasyLabs data, the TE1 for a team (.50) and the opposing TE1 (.38) both have a positive correlation with the primary team’s QB. When it makes sense, we should be trying to include TEs in stacks as this will increase the chances of his hitting on a cheap TE play.

Now, this all seems simple, but it’s not as easy as it may seem. After all, our TE can go out and give us 3 receptions for 30 yards and a whopping 6 DraftKings points. But here’s the beauty of it all – it doesn’t really matter. Remember, the entire strategy behind punting the TE position is that it allows us to spend up on the rest of our roster. When comparing rosters with a punt TE against those rostering a mid-range TE, we can be confident that the rest of our roster will outscore our opponents more weeks than not, assuming our process was strong at identifying our QB, RB and WR plays for the week. From a point per dollar perspective, we’re getting better value than our opponents who are spending up on the mid-range plays.

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Include the Tight End Position in Game Stacks to Improve Correlation

Hitting on a punt tight end is difficult in isolation. Finding a ceiling with mid-range tight ends is even more difficult when considering a price per dollar approach. Given that we know the tight end position outside of the top tier doesn’t usually have ceiling performances, how do we improve the chances that our tight end has a good game? Include them in a stack with our QB or as a bring-back in a game stack. According to FantasyLabs data that goes back to 2014, the TE1 for a team has a correlation coefficient of 0.50. For perspective, the WR1 has a correlation of 0.55 and the WR2 has a correlation of 0.53. In other words, when a QB has a good game, so do his pass catchers. We’ve already established that we’re not very good at identifying TE performances in isolation, so why not stack them with a QB to minimize the number of things we need to get correct?

Similarly, TEs are appropriate to include in full game stacks. Again, when looking at FantasyLabs data, the opposing team’s TE1 is positively correlated with a coefficient of 0.38. It’s obviously not as strong of a correlation as it is to stack the TE with his own QB, but it’s an option and one that again, can help us improve our chances of hitting on the TE position.

When to Pay Up for a Stud TE

To this point, this article has primarily focused on how to handle the mid-range tight ends and the punt tight ends, but what about the elite TEs like Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and George Kittle? Given that these pass catchers are more like wide receivers rather than tight ends, we should probably view them in the same lens as the WRs in the same price range. Let’s look at a primary example from 2020: Travis Kelce vs. Davante Adams.

Last season, Kelce’s average salary on DraftKings was $7,206. Davante Adams‘ average weekly salary came in at $8,537. On average, Kelce scored an average of 22.1 points per week, while Adams scored 27.2 points per week. From a point per dollar perspective, Kelce (.0031) was just as valuable as Adams (.0032). Now, we need to take this data with a grain of salt – Travis Kelce literally had the best TE season we’ve ever seen so this may not be the norm moving forward but it does highlight that the elite TEs are the only ones at the position who can even remotely come close to the elite WRs.

My take-home point here is that we should view the elite tight ends similarly to those who are priced around them at the wide receiver position. If we can see a path to the downside for an elite WR (battling injury, poor game environment, questionable QB play, elevated roster percentage, etc.), maybe we should consider pivoting to paying up for an elite TE. The other scenario that would make sense to pay up at TE is when we have a cheap plug-and-play RB available to us and we have the salary to be able to get up to the stud TEs.

One thing is clear, however. And that is that we don’t want to be stuck in the middle. Most weeks, we should likely choose one of two strategies: Pay up for an elite TE or punt the position and save our salary to build a stronger lineup elsewhere. The decision here is likely to be made on a week-by-week basis, so we’ll be sure to discuss this in more detail each week on the DFS Podcast and in the DFS Pass.

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