Daily Fantasy Playbook: Tight End Strategy

Daily Fantasy Playbook: Tight End Strategy

By Chris Raybon (Senior Daily Fantasy Expert), last updated Aug 21, 2014

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Chris Raybon is the Senior Daily Fantasy Editor at 4for4 Fantasy Football.

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisRaybon.

Jimmy Graham is awesome. He’s like a maxed-out created player in Madden who you use to troll the computer for 500 yards per game. His awesomeness is only enhanced because he protests the No-Fun-League by insisting on using his 6-foot 7-inch, 265 pound frame to rattle the goal posts with his signature celebration dunk. But if you want to end up having a reason to celebrate with dunks of your own at the end of each daily fantasy football week, putting Graham in your daily fantasy lineup at all costs might not be the best idea.

 

Tight End Salary Allocation

For those who haven’t read my previous positional guides, I advocate a salary allocation strategy that varies depending on whether you are entering cash games (50/50s, head to heads, etc.) or large tournaments.

In cash games, your objective should be to maximize your floor, dictating paying up for the least volatile positions (quarterback and running back) who will give you the most consistent points. In tournaments, you need to maximize your ceiling, which means paying up for the more volatile positions (wide receiver, tight end) who can hit big and give you a major advantage over others at the position.

Out of the main four fantasy positions, tight ends are afforded the least opportunity to score fantasy points. As a result they are the most volatile position, scoring above or below their mean fantasy output by 67 percent on average. That 67 percent figure is known as the coefficient of variation (CV), which is found by dividing standard deviation by mean. Wide receivers are in a similar boat in terms of volatility with a 65 percent CV, but quarterbacks and running backs check in at 45 and 55 percent, respectively.

Since tight ends are so volatile, they have the lowest floors of any position. To visualize this, let’s assume we have a tight end projected to score 19 points. How would his floor stack up against players at other positions expected to perform similarly? We can multiply a player’s CV by his mean, and then subtract that result from his mean to arrive at an approximate floor.

  • QB: 19 - (19 * 0.45) = 10.45
  • RB: 19 - (19 * 0.55) = 8.55
  • WR: 19 - (19 * 0.65) = 6.65
  • TE: 19 - (19 * 0.67) = 6.27

Players that are expected to post similar production will more often than not be priced at least somewhat similarly, so paying up for a tight end is usually a bad investment in cash games. Spending on a tight end usually exposes your investment to the lowest possible potential floor, which in cash games is the exact opposite of our goal. But the example above was merely a hypothetical projection. How would this strategy look in action?

 

Should You Pay Up For Jimmy Graham?

It turns out there actually was a tight end who averaged 19 fantasy points per game last season (one point PPR scoring): Jimmy Graham. Graham dominated his position in 2013, comfortably outscoring Rob Gronkowski by 1.5 points per game (and managing to appear in nine more games), and outscoring third place tight end Julius Thomas by 3.6 fantasy points. Does Graham’s dominance over his peers make him an exception to the rule that you shouldn’t pay up for tight end in cash games?

Graham was actually more consistent than the average tight end, posting a coefficient of variation of 55 percent. To determine whether paying up for Graham, let’s compare him to players at other positions who scored similarly in 2013. Since Graham averaged 19.0 fantasy points per game, I took a look at all players who averaged between 18 and 20.

Players Who Averaged 18-20 FP/G (1 Pt PPR, 4 Pt Pass TD, -1 Int), 2013
 

PPG

CV

Season Low Floor

Demaryius Thomas

19.9

47%

8.5

A.J. Green

19.3

50%

2.7

Brandon Marshall

18.8

43%

8.2

Antonio Brown

19.3

48%

10.9

Dez Bryant

18.5

50%

5.4

Knowshon Moreno

18.5

48%

5.5

DeMarco Murray

18.6

44%

11.0

Cam Newton

19.4

39%

7.5

Andy Dalton

19.3

43%

6.5

Philip Rivers

18.7

34%

8.7

Aaron Rodgers

19.5

46%

2.0

Matthew Stafford

18.4

35%

6.8

Andrew Luck

18.4

34%

9.0

Tony Romo

18.0

42%

9.1

Average

19.0

43%

7.3

Jimmy Graham

19.0

55%

0.0

 
Not even one player who scored in the neighborhood of Graham had a higher CV or a lower floor than him. In other words, if you were looking for the safest 19 fantasy points you could find, you would have fared better by taking any other player at any other position not named Jimmy Graham.
 
Now obviously, these players’ salaries will vary throughout the season and sometimes Graham will be cheaper than other players expected to post a similar output, but that’s the point. Graham is still great if you get him at a solid price, but you shouldn’t be paying up for him at the expense of a player with a similar projection at another position if you’re seeking a high floor.
 
The same volatility that makes paying up for Graham in cash games a bad choice is extremely useful in large tournaments where you need a huge ceiling. Check out how Graham fared against players who average 18-20 fantasy points per game in terms of ceiling:
Players Who Averaged 18-20 FP/G (1 Pt PPR, 4 Pt Pass TD, -1 Int), 2013

Player

Season High Ceiling

30+ Games

Demaryius Thomas

35.8

2

A.J. Green

37.2

1

Brandon Marshall

32.9

1

Antonio Brown

40.6

2

Dez Bryant

32.3

2

Knowshon Moreno

35.4

2

DeMarco Murray

33.2

1

Cam Newton

30.7

2

Andy Dalton

32

3

Philip Rivers

29.9

0

Aaron Rodgers

34.9

1

Matthew Stafford

28.7

0

Andrew Luck

32.2

2

Tony Romo

39.9

1

Average

34.0

1.42

Jimmy Graham

34.4

3.00

 
Graham’s season high game of 34.4 fantasy points is right on par with the season highs of similarly scoring players at other positions. Furthermore, he had more 30 point outbursts than everyone but Andy Dalton, who also had three. Because of how Graham’s ceiling stacks up to players at other positions and because of his dominance over the rest of his position, it behooves you to heavily target Graham in tournaments. The same can be applied to Rob Gronkowski when healthy.

 

Which Statistics Are Most Important When Analyzing Tight Ends?

With the abundance of advanced NFL statistics and the stark differences between positions, it’s good to have an idea of which stats correlate the most to fantasy output at a given position. I looked at the correlation between various statistics and fantasy points per game for tight ends, using both 0.5 and 1.0 PPR scoring systems.

A quick refresher on correlation: The scale is -1 to 1. Positive values indicate variables move in the same direction, while negative values indicate variables move in opposite directions. An absolute value of 1 means perfect correlation. Absolute values above 0.7 are considered strong, those between 0.3 and 0.7 are moderate, and those under 0.3 are weak.

Statistical Correlations to Tight End FP/G, 2013
 

Correlation to 1 Pt PPR FP/G

Correlation to 0.5 Pt PPR FP/G

Rec Yds/G

0.97

0.96

Targ/G

0.92

0.89

Rec/G

0.89

0.85

RZ Targ/G

0.88

0.88

Rec TD/G

0.86

0.89

% of Team Targ

0.86

0.84

% of Team Pass Yds

0.83

0.83

RZ TD/G

0.82

0.85

% of Team Rec

0.77

0.74

% of Team RZ Targ

0.74

0.75

Routes/G

0.70

0.66

YAC/G

0.69

0.68

% of Team Pass TD

0.62

0.66

Team  Pass TD/G

0.47

0.47

Snaps/G

0.38

0.36

Yds/Rec

0.36

0.42

Team Pass Yds/G

0.36

0.35

RZ TD Rate

0.20

0.23

Catch %

0.11

0.07

 
 

Target Targets

Obviously, yards and touchdowns are important, but there are a few other significant correlations that we need to take note of. First of all, receptions correlate to fantasy success for tight ends (0.89, 0.85) a lot stronger than they do for wide receivers (0.59, 0.57). By nature, tight ends see shorter targets (unless they line up out wide), so they tend to have high catch rates and less variance in per-reception fantasy production. This explains why the correlations for both targets and receptions are strong.

The correlation between fantasy points and targets is so incredibly strong that it leaves no doubt; for tight ends, we should strongly emphasize volume over efficiency. Prioritzing volume echos my approach to running backs and wide receivers as well, and here's why.

When making the jump from season-long to daily fantasy, one of the main differences is that seeking value in talent is deemphasized in favor of seeking value in volume. By drafting talented players in season-long leagues who aren’t necessarily in optimal roles yet, you are making the assumption that the player’s talent will win out over the course of the season, leading to an increased amount of opportunities at some point.

In daily fantasy, you don’t have that kind of time. Sure, a talented player may make a big play in a given game, but his upside is still capped compared to a player getting a steady opportunity to produce within an offense. Talent comes into play in daily fantasy for sure, but it is used more to differentiate between players already getting a similar amount of opportunities.

In choosing your tight end, always start by searching for cheap sources of targets. As the percentage of workload correlations above suggest, the more involved a tight end is in his team’s passing game, the better. Of the 32 tight ends who saw at least 40 targets last season, nine averaged six or more per game. All nine of those tight ends finished in the top 10, joined by Vernon Davis. How did Davis do so well? He was third in the league in red zone targets, which also correlate very strongly with fantasy output for tight ends.

 

The Red Zone, Touchdowns, and Upside

Tight ends see a low volume and consequently don’t have as much yardage upside as other positions. In fact, only three tight ends averaged more than 60 yards per game last season. Because tight ends see a relatively small amount of opportunities to rack up yardage, the success of your tight end in a given week will be largely dependent on if he scores a touchdown that week.

The importance of touchdowns is supported by the very strong correlation of fantasy points to red zone targets. Based on the league average, the percentage of passing touchdowns that occur in the red zone is about 66 percent. For tight ends, that figure climbs to nearly 80 percent. Tight ends also convert red zone targets into touchdowns at a 33 percent rate, which is significantly higher than the league average of 22 percent.

Since tight ends almost always have a size advantage in any matchup they face, I wouldn’t even worry about a tight end’s past red zone touchdown rate. Size is crucial in the red zone and as long as a tight end is getting opportunities in close, he’s got a decent shot at converting those into six points. You may be able to find value during the season in tight ends who have been getting red zone targets but haven’t converted them at a high rate. The lack of touchdowns will keep his salary depressed, but he will have a decent shot at putting up touchdowns going forward.

To find the tight ends who will likely get the most red zone targets, we can start by giving a look to ones on teams expected to move the ball well. Another source of red zone targets can exist on teams with smaller receivers. Teams like the Seahawks, Steelers, and Jaguars all project to start two relatively small wide receivers, so don’t be surprised to see Zach Miller, Heath Miller, or Marcedes Lewis post decent touchdown totals. Those names may not sound sexy, but with a position as volatile as tight end, sometimes the best thing to do is embrace the paradoxically predictable randomness and put yourself in position to capitalize on the instances where there is upward variance.

 

How Do We Know What a Good Matchup Is?

If you were successful at daily fantasy football last season, chances are your first question of every week regarding tight ends was “who is Arizona playing?” The 2013 version of the Cardinals gave up 28 percent more schedule adjusted fantasy points to tight ends than the second-worst team. 

The Cardinals became a pretty easy target early on, but overall there was not much differentiation between tight end defense in 2013; 29 of the 32 NFL teams were all within four (one-point PPR) points of one another. In other words, targeting an obscenely bad team versus tight ends is easy, but how do we figure out who the other, less obvious good matchups are to target, especially early in the season? To try and answer that question, I examined correlations between various team statistics and fantasy points allowed to tight ends:

Statistical Correlations to TE Fantasy Points Allowed, 2013
 

Correlation

Pass Att Allowed to TE FPA

0.34

Plays Allowed to TE FPA

0.31

Pass Yds Allowed to TE FPA

0.30

Total (Real) Points Allowed to TE FPA

0.29

Total Yds Allowed to TE FPA

0.24

2012 TE FPA

0.11

Yds/Play Allowed to TE FPA

0.07

Y/Pass Att Allowed to TE FPA

0.07

WR FPA to TE FPA

-0.06

WR Rec/G Allowed to TE Rec/G Allowed

-0.09

 
The strongest correlations to fantasy points allowed for tight ends are still weak. The strongest is simply passing attempts allowed, which does make sense because targets correlate so strongly to tight end fantasy scoring.
 
Moving on, I thought that there was a chance teams that were stingy to wide receivers would cause opposing offenses to look to the tight end more, thereby increasing tight end production. Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians actually said as much last season; he didn't seem overly concerned with his team's lackluster defense versus tight ends because Patrick Peterson and company generally did a good job on wide receivers. However, this trend doesn’t hold up, as there was basically no correlation between production allowed to wide receivers and production allowed to tight ends.
 
In case you weren’t aware, there is a “stats versus film” debate going on amongst analysts in the fantasy football universe. I stand squarely in the middle; I use both film and stats extensively and feel they are both beneficial to my craft. I find film to be more helpful than usual when assessing tight end matchups because many big plays made by tight ends are largely the result of the defense's scheme, or a defense completely blowing an assignment and letting the tight end get wide open and catch the ball with enough space to lumber for a big gain. I personally find that visualizing those instances is easier than quantifying them with statistics.
 
Many excellent studies have been done on a related topic: the viability of tight end streaming in season long leagues. In a nutshell, they found that in favorable matchups, mediocre tight ends produce at nearly the same level as league's better tight ends and vice-versa. The problem is that without the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to accurately pinpoint who the favorable matchups truly are.
 
Remember those obscenely bad 2013 Cardinals? They were the number one defense versus tight ends in 2012. They did change defensive coordinators, which goes back to what I said earlier about scheme being a factor. The more the season goes on, the more we can see which teams are truly susceptible to tight ends, but there’s still a ton of variance and randomness in those numbers. Remember, since tight ends see the fewest targets, statistics allowed to tight ends have the smallest sample size. If a tight end otherwise fits the framework of a strong selection, I wouldn’t avoid him even if his opponent has good numbers against tight ends over the past few games.
 
 

Recap

  1. TIght ends are the most volatile of any of the major positions.
  2. Save on tight ends in cash games, pay up in tournaments.
  3. Jimmy Graham is not an exception to the rule in cash games.
  4. Emphasize volume over efficiency.
  5. Targets correlate almost perfectly with tight end production.
  6. Because tight ends see such low volume, red zone targets are vital.
  7. The quality of an opposing matchup is difficult to pinpoint, especially early in the season.

Filed Under: Preseason, 2014

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