DFS Playbook Strategy: How to Pick a Tight End

Aug 29, 2017
DFS Playbook Strategy: How to Pick a Tight End

If you're not exploiting the tight end slot, you're not maximizing your profits in DFS. The position's low salaries and inherent volatility can be used to your advantage.

This article will show you how to pick the best tight end in DFS, and just as importantly, how to use the position to get the most out of the rest of your lineup. You'll learn how to exploit the position's surprisingly predictable TD-scoring pattern, minimize busts, and pinpoint tight ends that have a realistic show at one of the two paths to being a tournament-winner.

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2 Keys to Accurate Tight End Projections

After making the assertion that he was the NFL's best tight end—which felt like nothing more than an alley-oop to snark-ready pundits at the time—Kyle Rudolph seemingly backed up his claim by posting a top-five fantasy season at the position. Actually, "backed into it" is more appropriate, as he rode a bevy of dump-offs from check-down chairman Sam Bradford to 8.3 targets per game, which led a position that saw only five other players crack even 7.0 targets per game. Rudolph wasn't bad by any means, but he wasn't exactly amazing, either, finishing just 13th in PPR points per snap and 30th in tight end DVOA. Rudolph's tale epitomizes a basic truth in fantasy football: Volume trumps efficiency at positions where volume is scarce.

1. Weight Volume Over Efficiency

Despite not being nearly as predictive on the single-game level as it is from one season to the next, a tight end’s averages in box score volume stats—targets, receptions, and yards—remain the predominant means to project his upcoming fantasy production.

Weighted Correlation of TE Season Avg. to Next Game DFS Points
Season Avg Weighted Correlation (DK Pts) Season Avg Weighted Correlation (FD Pts)
Tar/G .225 Tar/G .214
Rec/G .215 Rec Yds/G .207
Rec Yds/G .213 Rec/G .204
DK Pts/G .212 FD Pts/G .203
TD/G .103 TD/G .111
Yds/Tar .071 Yds/Tar .073
Yds/Rec .065 Yds/Rec .069
DK Pts/Tar .043 FD Pts/Tar .055
Catch % .027 Catch % .024
TD % .010 TD % .022

Data from all top-30 TEs in 2014–16. Correlation is weighted to account for the greater amount of samples available for one game than 15 games, etc., in a given season.

In terms of a tight end’s season averages over his past three games or fewer, targets tend to be the most predictive category of upcoming-game fantasy points. But as the sample size grows, receptions, yards, and even fantasy point average itself start to become equally as predictive, with only regression-prone TD output and efficiency stats that don't account for volume lagging behind.

Targets, however, maintain an edge over the other stat categories when it comes to using season-to-date average to predict upcoming-game output in that same category, and thus it makes sense to treat them as the predominant gauge of a tight end's upcoming fantasy production.

Weighted Correlation of TE Seasonal Average to Next Game
Season Avg Stat Category Correlation (Stat in Next Game)
Targets/Game .328
Receptions/Game .268
Receiving Yards/Game .261
TD/Game .096

Data from all top-30 TEs in 2014–16. Correlation is weighted to account for the greater amount of samples available for one game than for 15 games, etc., in a given season.

As opposed to in-line tight ends, who run most of their routes from the edge of the offensive line, athletic "move," or joker, tight ends can run routes from the slot or split out wide. Naturally, these athletic receiving tight ends will tend to carry the most fantasy upside, and thus be the most likely players at their position to overcome lack of opportunity with sheer efficiency. Jordan Reed and Travis Kelce, for instance, finished No. 1 and No. 2 in fantasy points per game on both major DFS sites despite ranking fifth and sixth in targets per game, respectively. And of course there's Rob Gronkowski, who managed third- and eighth-place finishes in points per game on FanDuel and DraftKings, respectively, despite (somehow) ending up just 23rd in targets per game (4.8).

Nevertheless, only 10 tight ends in 2016 averaged more than six targets per game while 12 remained stuck in the 5-to-6-target-per-game purgatory, so any signal of a spike beyond the doldrums of a handful of targets is noteworthy, even for an in-line type. For instance, Rudolph and Dennis Pitta, who both finished as a top-five point per dollar plays on DraftKings and FanDuel last season, were already both averaging 8.0 targets per game after Week 2 in a sign of things to come.

2. Project a Bump for Tight Ends at Home or on Favorites

The goal in DFS is to marry opportunity with strong performance. One of the reasons why a tight end's in-season TD average is not as predictive as volume of upcoming-game fantasy points is that tight ends will tend to score most of their TD in specific circumstances, namely when playing at home or while their team is the favorite.

Percentage of TEs with Equal or Better TD Splits at Home or as Favorite
Split TE Stat % Equal/Better
Home TD/Game 69.6%
Favorite TD/Target 64.0%
Home TD/Target 62.8%
Favorite TD/Game 60.0%

Data includes TEs from 2013 to 2016 with at least 8 games played, multiple games in each split, and 5.0 PPG in given season.

Since an average of just 1.2 tight ends per week over the past four seasons have posted multi-TD games, the position’s TD potential can essentially be treated as a binary outcome most of the time: zero TDs or one TD. If a tight end is not at home, on a team that's the favorite, or both, that outcome is more than likely going to be zero TDs.

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2 Strategies for Tight End Cash Game Lineup Construction

The tight end position is volatile: the average top-20 fantasy TE will see his weekly fantasy point totals land 70% above or below his seasonal fantasy point per game average, a rate which is double that of QB and 10-20 percentage points higher than that of RB and WR. Failing to take this volatility into account could lead to overspending on the position in cash games in pursuit of illusory consistency, so it's not a good move to uniformly target a linear multiplier at every position (e.g., 3x on DraftKings/2x on FanDuel) that doesn't account for positional- and salary-based expectation. We can find out how many points are actually realistic for a tight end in cash games by using a formula derived from a regression analysis on the relationship between position, salary, and scoring:

TE cash game target score for 150 DraftKings points (3x) = 8.1 + (salary * 0.00130)

TE cash game target score for 120 FanDuel points (2x) = 1.5 + (salary * 0.00162)

For example, Tyler Eifert’s $6,000 salary on DraftKings in Week 14 last season would mean adding 7.8 to the starting-point floor of 8.1, for a cash game target score of 15.9 (2.65x), which is very different from the scoring expectation of a player with the same salary at each of the other positions:

TE Cash Gash Game Target Score Examples
DK Salary ($) QB RB WR TE FD Salary ($) QB RB WR TE
7000 3.23 2.79 2.67 2.46 6500 2.78 2.18 2.05 1.85
6000 3.62 3.03 2.93 2.65 6000 2.91 2.25 2.13 1.87
5000 4.17 3.37 3.28 2.92 5500 3.07 2.34 2.22 1.89
4000 3.88 3.81 3.33 5000 3.26 2.45 2.33 1.92
3000 4.72 4.69 4.00 4500 2.58 2.47 1.95

At higher salaries, the TE slot can't be expected to provide as much value as other positions; at lower salaries, a bust from the TE slot will have less of a negative impact than it would have at other positions. This often makes at the ideal position to punt. Taking a zero from a minimum-priced TE on FanDuel, for instance, would in theory set your lineup back 8.8 points, while taking a zero at RB or WR would cost over 11 points.

1. Account for Volatility by Spending as Little as Possible

Since tight ends are relatively low-scoring and inexpensive in DFS, the TE slot can act as the linchpin of your DFS lineup; you can fearlessly slot in a cheap option that allows you to fit higher salaries elsewhere without giving up an edge.

DraftKings: Target Cheap Volume

A salary anywhere in $4,000s has been a sweet spot for the cash game consistency of TEs on DraftKings. In that range, they've edged RBs and WRs in consistency rate, as well as other TEs with lower salaries. TEs in the $3,000s, however, have also tended to fare better than RBs and WRs in the same salary range.

DraftKings Cash Game Target Score Consistency Rate (2015-16)
Salary ($) QB Cons % n (QB) RB Cons % n (RB) WR Cons % n (WR) TE Cons % n (TE)
9000+ 72.7% 11 44.7% 47
8500–8900 16.7% 6 71.4% 7 52.5% 61
8000–8400 50.0% 14 40.0% 15 23.8% 42 75.0% 4
7500–7900 37.7% 61 46.8% 47 30.0% 110 28.6% 7
7000–7400 31.8% 110 30.8% 65 32.3% 130 50.0% 8
6500–6900 32.4% 136 33.3% 69 29.7% 155 31.6% 19
6000–6400 33.6% 137 24.2% 99 33.7% 169 46.7% 15
5500–5900 27.9% 165 24.6% 134 24.4% 180 40.0% 35
5000–5400 18.2% 379 28.1% 139 22.6% 190 14.6% 48
4500–4900 24.5% 212 21.8% 229 35.6% 90
4000–4400 30.1% 219 23.7% 266 32.5% 77
3500–3900 21.9% 178 27.0% 230 25.2% 119
3000–3400 25.0% 100 22.6% 186 28.7% 188
2500–2900 24.0% 175

Data does not include non-starting QBs, RBs/WRs projected under 9.0 points, and TEs projected under 7.5 points in a given week by 4for4.

Uneven performance of the small sample of expensive TEs notwithstanding, the numbers imply a relative advantage to deploying a TE priced anywhere from $3,000–$4,900, of which there have been an average of 13.9 instances per week available over the past two seasons (that hit the 7.5-point projection cut-off). Depending on salary, these TEs will need between 12 and 15 points to hit value, making any TE that can project for that scoring range's historical average of 7.1 targets and 4.9 receptions an option.

FanDuel: Punt Whenever Necessary

There's been essentially no difference in consistency between a minimum-priced tight end on FanDuel and one that costs three grand more. In fact, besides what's likely just small-sample variance above $8,000 (Gronk), there's been essentially no variation in consistency rate between TEs in any salary range.

FanDuel Cash Game Target Score Consistency Rate (2013-16)
FD Salary ($) QB Cons % n (QB) RB Cons % n (RB) WR Cons % n (WR) TE Cons % n (TE)
9000+ 46.7% 192 51.2% 123 40.4% 114
8500–8900 33.5% 209 43.4% 145 45.1% 175 11.1% 9
8000–8400 34.5% 258 36.3% 146 37.0% 211 58.5% 41
7500–7900 32.9% 356 25.3% 182 36.4% 269 33.3% 36
7000–7400 29.7% 306 34.1% 293 28.5% 389 30.6% 36
6500–6900 22.1% 312 27.8% 399 26.6% 537 30.1% 28
6000–6400 24.1% 220 31.2% 337 30.9% 560 31.8% 170
5500–5900 34.5% 55 29.6% 240 31.6% 383 31.0% 248
5000–5400 25.0% 68 22.7% 141 31.2% 237 32.0% 197
45004900 39.7% 68 32.3% 96 32.6% 89

Data does not include non-starting QBs, RBs/WRs projected under 9.0 points, and TEs projected under 7.75 points in a given week by 4for4.

Given the lack of a drop-off in consistency all the way down to the lowest price point, the TE slot is, as was mentioned, best served as the default punt position when contemplating FanDuel cash game lineup construction. Tight ends priced $5,000 and under will need between 8.8 and 9.6 points to hit value, putting into consideration any tight end that can realistically hit that scoring range's historical average requirement of 7.0 targets and 4.8 catches.

2. Target Tight Ends at Home to Maximize Consistency

Despite home-field advantage being built into Vegas odds, a four-year sample suggests that for tight ends, DFS salary algorithms weight Vegas odds overall considerably more than they weight where the game is being played, which has led to a sizeable consistency advantage on both sites for tight ends playing at home.

Data from 2013 to 2016 and does not include TEs projected below 7.75 FanDuel or 7.5 DraftKings points in a given week by 4for4.

Until/unless DFS sites suddenly change course with their pricing algorithms, choosing a tight end that's playing in his own building will be a sharp way to maximize the floor of the TE slot in a cash game lineup.

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2 Paths to Picking a Tight End That Wins GPP Tournaments

Note: Data in this section was compiled from first-place lineups in the 2015-16 DraftKings Millionaire Maker and FanDuel Sunday Million guaranteed prize pool tournaments.

First-place lineups haven't utilized a particularly tactical approach to the TE position. The average salary allocation and ownership is what you'd expect, and only a modest 22% of Millionaire Maker and 15% of Sunday Million lineups had a QB-TE stack. So what did the first-place lineups do to win? Simply nail one of the two or three highest-scoring TEs of the week.

TE in 1st-place Lineups (2015-16)
Site/GPP Points Salary ($) Own % Stacked w/QB
DraftKings Millionaire Maker 25.3 4594 10.3% 19%
FanDuel Sunday Million 18.4 5918 10.1% 15%

Picking a TE with a tournament-winning ceiling can go through either of two distinct paths: a 100-yard game (preferable on DraftKings) or a multi-TD game (preferable on FanDuel).

1. Choose a Tight End with 100-Yard Upside

Over the last four seasons, roughly 1.5 tight ends per week have posted a 100-yard game. Since 100-yard games historically take an average of 10.1 targets at the position, they tend to be produced mostly by the league's premier tight ends. As such, these TEs are liable to carry relatively high salaries and ownership percentages (and if 2016 is any indication, they also tend to be named Travis Kelce).

100-yard TE Profile
TE Profile 100-Yard TE
Avg DK Salary $5,250
Avg FD Salary $6,405
Avg Targets 10.1
Favorite 72.1%
Home 61.5%
Home Favorite 50.0%
Multi-TD 19.2%

Data from 2013 to 2016 and does not include TEs projected below 7.75 FanDuel points or 7.5 DraftKings points in a given week by 4for4.

Potential producers of 100-yard games at the tight end position are best identified by obvious factors, namely previous track record. In each of the past four seasons, roughly a half-dozen tight ends have posted multiple 100-yard games, and those repeat performers combine to account for about two-thirds of all 100-yard games in each respective season. And in what should not be a surprise by now, a whopping 50% of all 100-yard games by a tight end during that span have come while his team is a home favorite.

2. Choose a Tight End with Multi-Touchdown Upside

As mentioned, roughly 1.2 multi-TD games per week have been recorded by tight ends over the last four years. Relative to 100-yard games, however, multi-TD games have been less predictable—just 23% of tight ends to post multiple TDs have done so more than once in the same season. However, this unpredictability provides a chance to exploit variance, as compared to a 100-yard game, a multi-TD game costs on average of $500 less.

Multi-TD TE Profile
TE Profile Multi-TD TE
Avg DK Salary $4,666
Avg FD Salary $5,965
Avg Targets 7.9
Favorite 71.3%
Home 53.8%
Home Favorite 47.0%
100+ Yards 25.0%

Data from 2013 to 2016 and does not include TEs projected below 7.75 FanDuel or 7.5 DraftKings points in a given week by 4for4.

Despite being unpredictable relative to 100-yard games, multi-TD games still tend to come under predictable circumstances in the form of playing for the favorite, especially at home.

Another identifiable trait for a tight end with decent odds of hitting the paint twice is him being among his team’s most frequent targets in the red zone. Sometimes a tight end who is normally his team's third or fourth option overall will get bumped up in the red zone a couple of notches. Dwayne Allen and Jack Doyle, for instance, both posted multi-TD games for the Colts in 2016 while each commanding the same percentage of red zone targets as top option T.Y. Hilton, whose diminutive stature prevents him from being as much of a threat in close as he is between the 20s.

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TE Daily Fantasy Playbook (Recap)

TE projection strategy:

  • Weight volume over efficiency.
  • Project a bump for tight ends playing at home or as favorites.

TE cash game strategy:

  • Account for volatility by spending as little as possible.
    • DraftKings: Target cheap volume.
    • FanDuel: Punt whenever necessary.
  • Target tight ends at home to maximize consistency

TE tournament/GPP strategy:

  • Choose a tight end with 100-yard upside.
  • Choose a tight end with multi-TD upside.

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