We are in the final month of the year, and the 2018 NFL season is still on pace for a record-breaking campaign with an average of 23.9 points per game per team entering Thursday. The action continues with a 13-game main slate that kicks off on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
In this positional breakdown, I’m looking at four tight ends at the top of the individual Pro Models that Jonathan Bales, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Adam Levitan, Sean Koerner, Chris Raybon, Kevin McClelland (SportsGeek) and I have constructed.
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Model Tight Ends
- Travis Kelce: $6,700 DraftKings; $8,000 FanDuel
- Zach Ertz: $6,400 DraftKings; $7,400 FanDuel
- George Kittle: $5,500 DraftKings; $6,600 FanDuel
- Christopher Herndon: $3,000 DraftKings; $5,500 FanDuel
Travis Kelce: Kansas City Chiefs (-6.5) vs. Baltimore Ravens, 51 Over/Under
UPDATE (12/8): Wide receiver Sammy Watkins (foot) is out. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (acquired) is not expected to play after joining the team on Thursday. Tight end Demetrius Harris (knee, illness) is officially questionable but unlikely to play after not practicing on Thursday and Friday.
This spread opened at -9, but early money moved the line toward the Ravens, and it has now moved to -6.5, even though the Chiefs have gotten 65% of the tickets and 58% of the money as of Saturday evening. This reverse line movement suggests that sharp money is betting against Kansas City. As noted in Geoff Schwartz’s Week 14 Trench Report, the Ravens match up well with the Chiefs.
There’s significant reason to believe that the Chiefs could put up fewer points this weekend than we’re used to seeing: The Ravens are top-five against in run defense and pass defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. On top of that, in head coach Andy Reid’s tenure, Arrowhead Stadium has a league-worst 15-29-1 over/under record.
No home team since 2013 has lost over bettors more money (-32.1% return on investment) than the Chiefs (per Bet Labs). Most of those games were with Alex Smith at quarterback, but Kansas City isn’t an easy place to play, especially during the winter: The forecast is calling for a game-time temperature of 30 degrees.
But none of that will probably matter much to Kelce. He is currently in full-on #ZeusMode and could have another big game this week: Wide receiver Sammy Watkins (foot) is out, and Kelce has been nearly unstoppable in the five games in which Watkins has played less than 80% of the snaps.
- Week 4 (at Broncos): 20.8 DraftKings points, 7-78-1 receiving on 12 targets
- Week 9 (at Browns): 28.9 DraftKings points, 7-99-2 receiving on nine targets
- Week 10 (vs. Cardinals): 10.6 DraftKings points, 6-46-0 receiving on seven targets
- Week 11 (at Rams): 31.7 DraftKings points, 10-127-1 receiving on 15 targets
- Week 12 (at Raiders): 42.8 DraftKings points, 12-168-2 receiving on 13 targets
If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will.
Since 2016, Kelce leads all tight ends with 17.9 DraftKings points per game, and he’s also first overall with his +3.96 Plus/Minus. This season, he has top-two marks among all tight ends with 114 targets, 79 receptions, 1,082 yards receiving, 1,049 air yards, 472 yards after the catch and nine touchdowns. Kelce has been great ever since his 2014 breakout, but currently he’s having the best season of his career.
And even though the Ravens have a good defense, Kelce actually has a good matchup this week. The Ravens have something of a tight end funnel: They are second in pass DVOA against running backs and fifth and ninth in pass DVOA against primary and secondary wide receivers, but they are 25th in pass DVOA against tight ends.
The Ravens have allowed a middle-of-the-road 13.9 DraftKings points per game to the position, but the tight ends with success against the Ravens have been those who are similar to Kelce in terms of athleticism and in some cases offensive role.
- Vance McDonald (Steelers, Week 4): 10.2 DraftKings points, 5-62-0 receiving on five targets
- David Njoku (Browns, Week 5): 12.9 DraftKings points, 6-69-0 receiving on 11 targets
- Greg Olsen (Panthers, Week 8): 15.6 DraftKings points, 4-56-1 receiving on four targets
- Jared Cook (Raiders, Week 12): 11.2 DraftKings points, 2-32-1 receiving on five targets
- Jared Cook (Falcons, Week 13): 15.4 DraftKings points, 5-44-1 receiving on five targets
Ravens strong safety Tony Jefferson (ankle) is doubtful to play after missing practice all week. In his place, 2017 sixth-rounder Chuck Clark is likely to get the start. Clark has a subpar Pro Football Focus coverage grade of 65.5 and has allowed a catch rate of 80% in his coverage this season. Filling in for Jefferson over the past two weeks, Clark allowed two touchdowns. Kelce should go off in this situation.
If you roster Kelce in guaranteed prize pools, you might want to use our Lineup Builder to stack him with quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Since 2014, No. 1 tight ends on average have had a 0.48 correlation with their quarterbacks, but Kelce has had a 0.78 correlation with his passers.
On Sunday morning, I might look to bet the over on Kelce’s yardage prop. The Chiefs and Ravens both have a top-eight situation-neutral pace, so I’m not expecting the Ravens to slow down the game too much with their rushing attack. Kelce should still get plenty of targets coming his way.
To find the best bets in the props market, use our Player Props Tool, which is powered by our industry-leading projections. Since Week 1, the props with a bet quality of 10 have gone 209-94-11, good for a 67% win rate. Without question, you should supplement your DFS action with player props.
On the Wednesday edition of The Action Network NFL Podcast, guest Renee Miller mentioned Kelce as a strong candidate for cash games and GPPs. And because of the salary savings available at other positions this week, you can almost certainly afford him.
Kelce leads all tight ends with his median and ceiling projections, and he has a position-high eight Pro Trends on DraftKings, where he’s the No. 1 tight end in every Pro Model except for one (Freedman, naturally).
Zach Ertz: Philadelphia Eagles (+3) vs. Dallas Cowboys, 45.5 O/U
UPDATE (12/8): Left tackle Jason Peters (ankle) is expected to play despite not practicing all week. Running back Josh Adams (shoulder) is in after practicing in full on Thursday and Friday.
Cowboys defensive tackle David Irving (ankle) is out, as is linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring).
Kelce is the best tight end in the league right now, but Ertz is a close second. Among all players (not just tight ends), Ertz is sixth with 121 targets and second with 93 receptions. He’s top-eight with 19 red-zone targets. He’s the team leader with 978 yards receiving, 887 air yards, 280 yards after the catch and six touchdowns. Ertz is the modern-day prototype tight end, capable of playing snaps inline (351), in the slot (301) and out wide (107).
Even with the return of No. 1 wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in Week 4, Ertz has dominated the team’s aerial usage. In truth, he’s the team’s clear top receiving option.
- Ertz (Weeks 4-13): 16.5 FanDuel points per game, 88 targets, 72-763-6 receiving
- Jeffery (Weeks 4-13): 10.5 FanDuel points per game, 65 targets, 43-492-4 receiving
Not even the addition of slot receiver Golden Tate has been able to keep Ertz from hitting his usual numbers.
- Ertz (Weeks 10-13): 16.9 FanDuel points per game, 37 targets, 32-334-3 receiving
- Tate (Weeks 10-13): 8.6 FanDuel points per game, 27 targets, 18-182-1 receiving
Tate eventually might steal slot targets from Ertz, but so far the tight end has been able to maintain his middle-of-the-field workload.
The Eagles have a relatively low implied Vegas total of 20.25 points, but I’m not worried about Ertz’s ability to produce this weekend: In Week 10, Ertz put up a slate-high 33.5 FanDuel points, 14 receptions, 145 yards receiving and two touchdowns on 16 targets. Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring) missed that game, and he’s out again this week.
Without Lee, the Cowboys will certainly be weaker at defending the tight end position. Rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is having a Defensive Rookie of the Year-caliber campaign, and third-year linebacker Jaylon Smith is flashing the talent that had him slated for the first round till he injured his knee in college, but they collectively have allowed an 81.5% catch rate this season. Ertz will doubtlessly win his snaps when he’s matched up against them.
And Cowboys safeties Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods have allowed a 75% catch rate in their coverage. The Cowboys don’t have one defender who can come close to matching up with Ertz except for maybe cornerback (and former safety) Byron Jones. Given that Jones has played almost exclusively on the outside this season, he’s unlikely to provide much coverage on Ertz this weekend.
Ertz is tied for the position lead with nine Pro Trends on FanDuel, where he’s the No. 1 tight end in the Bales and Levitan Models. I’m sure it’s just coincidental that they both happen to live in Philadelphia.
George Kittle: San Francisco 49ers (+3.5) vs. Denver Broncos, 45 O/U
UPDATE (12/8): Wide receiver Pierre Garcon (knee) is out.
Broncos cornerbacks Chris Harris (leg) and Tramaine Brock (ribs) and outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (hip) are out. Linebacker Brandon Marshall (knee) is out.
The spread opened at +5.5, but it has moved toward the 49ers even though they have gotten only 40% of the bets. Of course, they’ve also gotten 64% of the money: The sharps are backing the 49ers at home, which bodes well for Kittle.
There’s nothing notable about Kittle’s matchup with the Broncos, but it probably helps him that All-Pro slot cornerback Chris Harris (leg) is out, as well as backup corner Tramaine Brock (ribs). Over the past month, Kittle has played 59 slot snaps, more than he has played at any other time during the season. With Harris sidelined, Kittle is much likelier to have success when he lines up as a glorified wide receiver.
But regardless of matchup, Kittle has been a revelation this season. He leads the 49ers with 93 targets, 62 receptions, 893 yards receiving, 599 air yards and a magnificent 575 yards after the catch. To put some context to that last number: Kittle has more yards after the catch than any NFL wide receiver. He has a 103 more yards after the catch than Kelce, who ranks second. When Kittle gets the ball in space, he makes plays.
Even though he is playing with third-string quarterback Nick Mullens instead of #ShowerNarrative backup C.J. Beathard, Kittle is doing well as the undrafted passer’s go-to receiver. In fact, he’s been almost as productive with Mullens on a per-game basis as he was with Beathard.
- With C.J. Beathard (Weeks 4-8): 12.8 FanDuel points, +4.69 Plus/Minus, 7.4 targets, five receptions, 78.6 yards receiving, 0.4 touchdowns
- With Nick Mullens (Weeks 9-13): 12.6 FanDuel points, +3.31 Plus/Minus, nine targets, 6.3 receptions, 77.3 yards receiving, 0.25 touchdowns
Of course, part of Kittle’s surge in production has been due to the absence of wide receivers Pierre Garcon (knee) and Marquise Goodwin (personal). Although Goodwin will play this week, Garcon will miss his third straight game, so Kittle should once again have a high target share and will likely serve as the team’s No. 1 receiver.
Kittle is tied for the position lead with nine Pro Trends on FanDuel, where he’s the top tight end in the CSURAM88, Raybon and Freedman Models.
Christopher Herndon: New York Jets (+4) at Buffalo Bills, 37.5 O/U
UPDATE (12/8): Quarterback Sam Darnold (foot) will start. Wide receivers Quincy Enunwa (ankle) and Robby Anderson (ankle) are expected to play. Running back Isaiah Crowell (toe) is expected to play through his questionable tag.
Here’s the most embarrassing sentence I’ll ever type in my life (and this is coming from someone who just last week said that Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown is falling off a cliff): Herndon is the No. 1 DraftKings tight end in my Model.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time justifying it, but here’s the rationale:
- He’s dirt cheap at $3,000.
- He will have an ownership rate approaching 0%.
- He trails only Kelce, Kittle and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski with his six Pro Trends.
- He leads the team with 23 receptions, 298 yards receiving and three touchdowns since his Week 6 breakout.
What does it matter that the Bills are second in pass defense against tight ends (-39.8% DVOA)?
WHAT DOES IT MATTER?!
I won’t have Herndon in any lineup this weekend, but if you’re looking for salary relief at the position, he’s probably the player to use.
Positional Breakdowns & News
Be sure to read the other Week 14 positional breakdowns.
For more in-depth NFL analysis information, check out The Action Network.
Pictured above: Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87)
Photo credit: Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports