The Week 9 NFL main slate kicks off on Sunday, Nov. 8, at 1 p.m. ET.
In this piece, I highlight tight ends who stand out in our large suite of analytical fantasy tools, most specifically our FantasyLabs Models. While the Models are built for daily contests, this is an all-purpose fantasy article with actionable information for all formats.
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Top Tight Ends in the FantasyLabs Models
There are four tight ends atop the individual Pro Models that Jonathan Bales, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Sean Koerner, Chris Raybon, Kevin McClelland (SportsGeek), Ryan Hodge and I have constructed.
Here’s where they place within our Week 9 fantasy football rankings (as of Friday morning).
- Darren Waller: No. 2 (PPR) | No. 2 (Half PPR) | No. 2 (STD)
- Hunter Henry: No. 5 (PPR) | No. 6 (Half PPR) | No. 6 (STD)
- Jonnu Smith: No. 8 (PPR) | No. 8 (Half PPR) | No. 8 (STD)
- Greg Olsen: No. 20 (PPR) | No. 19 (Half PPR) | No. 20 (STD)
FantasyLabs Positional Breakdowns
Check in throughout the week as I publish the rest of the positional breakdowns.
Darren Waller: Las Vegas Raiders (+1) at Los Angeles Chargers (51.5 Over/Under)
There’s a lot to like about Waller. He’s No. 1 at the position with 14.9 expected fantasy points per game and a 28% target share (per RotoViz NFL Player Statistical Summary).
With the exception of his Weeks 3 & 8 letdowns against the tight end-stingy Patriots and weather-aided Browns, Waller has looked in 2020 every bit like the guy who led the Raiders last year with 90-1,145-3 receiving on 117 targets.
- Week 1 (at CAR): 10.5 PPR, 4.5 STD | 6-45-0, eight targets
- Week 2 (vs. NO): 28.5 PPR, 16.5 STD | 12-105-1, 16 targets
- Week 3 (at NE): 2.9 PPR, 0.9 STD | 2-9-0, four targets
- Week 4 (vs. BUF): 15.8 PPR, 6.8 STD | 9-88-0, 11 targets
- Week 5 (at KC): 15.8 PPR, 10.8 STD | 5-48-1, seven targets
- Week 7 (at TB): 17.0 PPR, 11.0 STD | 6-50-1, nine targets
- Week 8 (at CLE): 7.7 PPR, 2.7 STD | 6-27-0, five targets
Waller has been a fantasy TE1 in 57% of his games, and in only one contest has he not been at least a TE2.
What Waller has done since last year is remarkable. Certified baller.
For this week, Waller has a good matchup against the Chargers.
In 2018, they were No. 1 against tight ends with a -52.4% pass-defense DVOA (per Football Outsiders), in large part thanks to the playmaking ability of All-Pro strong safety Derwin James.
But James missed the majority of last year with a foot injury, and he’s out for the entirety of 2020 with yet another injury (knee, IR). Without James, the Chargers defense is radically different.
In James’ absence, the Chargers are No. 29 with a 26.5% pass-defense DVOA against tight ends this year.
The tight ends most comparable to Waller in talent and athleticism to face the Chargers this season have done well.
- Travis Kelce (Week 2): 24.0 PPR, 15.0 STD | 9-90-1, 14 targets
- O.J. Howard (Week 4): 14.0 PPR, 11.0 STD | 3-50-1, six targets
- Jared Cook (Week 5): 13.2 PPR, 11.2 STD | 2-52-1, three targets
- Noah Fant (Week 8): 11.7 PPR, 4.7 STD | 7-47-0, nine targets
On top of that, Waller is on the positive side of his Vegas splits. As an underdog, he has had more targets, receptions and touchdowns than as a favorite (per RotoViz Game Splits App).
In 12 losses, Waller has averaged 16.0 PPR and 9.8 STD points per game. In 11 wins, 11.9 and 6.5.
Waller is actually advantaged as an underdog and in defeat.
A locked-in top-three TE1 in season-long leagues, Waller is the unanimous No. 1 option in our Models for FanDuel, where he has a position-high +3.05 Projected Plus/Minus.
Waller is also the No. 1 tight end in the Bales Model for DraftKings.
Hunter Henry: Los Angeles Chargers (-1) vs. Las Vegas Raiders (51.5 O/U)
I’ve been writing the same thing about Henry for weeks now. The sad thing is that what I wrote a couple of games ago still applies.
This year, Henry has had a fairly meh-tacular campaign. The word “adequate” comes to mind.
- Week 1 (at CIN): 12.3 PPR, 7.3 STD | 5-73-0, eight targets
- Week 2 (vs. KC): 14.3 PPR, 8.3 STD | 6-83-0, eight targets
- Week 3 (vs. CAR): 10.0 PPR, 5.0 STD | 5-50-0, seven targets
- Week 4 (at TB): 5.9 PPR, 3.9 STD | 2-39-0, four targets
- Week 5 (at NO): 12.3 PPR, 8.3 STD | 4-23-1, eight targets
- Week 7 (vs. JAX): 5.3 PPR, 2.3 STD | 3-23-0, seven targets
- Week 8 (at DEN): 7.3 PPR, 3.3 STD | 4-33-0, four targets
His underlying numbers look good: Henry is No. 5 among tight ends with 70 air yards and yards after the catch (AirYAC) per game.
AirYAC is a leading indicator of fantasy output. You can find it in the RotoViz NFL Player Statistical Summary.
He’s also No. 11 with 10.0 expected fantasy points per game.
And yet he’s Nos. 15 and 25 with 9.6 PPR and 5.5 STD points per game.
You probably don’t need me to tell you, but that’s not good. But he should — “should” — improve at some point.
Last year he was similarly Nos. 7 and 8 with 78.7 AirYAC and 10.6 expected fantasy points per game, and his production tracked his underlying data, as he ranked Nos. 8 and 10 with 12.7 PPR and 8.1 STD points per game.
Basically, Henry has been unlucky this year. He’s a prime candidate for positive regression, which could hit this week.
Tight ends comparable to Henry to face the Raiders have produced.
- Jared Cook (Week 2): 9.3 PPR, 7.3 STD | 2-13-1, five targets
- Travis Kelce (Week 5): 24.8 PPR, 16.8 STD | 8-108-1, 12 targets
- Rob Gronkowski (Week 7): 17.2 PPR, 12.2 STD | 5-62-1, eight targets
In his two games against head coach Jon Gruden’s Raiders, Henry has averaged a respectable 11.3 PPR and 6.8 STD points per game on 9-75-1 receiving and 14 targets total.
This might finally be the week.
Henry is a mid-range TE1 in season-long leagues and the No. 1 option in the Koerner, Raybon and Hodge Models for DraftKings, where he has position-high marks with a +2.57 Projected Plus/Minus and nine Pro Trends.
Jonnu Smith: Tennessee Titans (-6.5) vs. Chicago Bears (46.5 O/U)
Smith has had an uneven season. In Weeks 1-5, he was an All-Pro impersonator with 18-221-5 receiving on 27 targets in four games. In Weeks 6-8, though, he was just 4-51-0 receiving on eight targets.
Granted, he missed most of Week 6 with a mid-game ankle injury, but he played almost his full allotment of snaps in Weeks 7-8 and did next to nothing.
Smith has plenty of talent. Last year, he was No. 8 at the position with 1.78 yards per route (per Pro Football Focus). This year, he’s No. 7 with 2.03. Since 2018, Smith is one of only nine tight ends with at least 8.0 yards per target (including postseason, minimum of 100 targets).
- O.J. Howard: 9.75
- George Kittle: 9.75
- Jared Cook: 9.52
- Rob Gronkowski: 9.11
- Travis Kelce: 8.98
- Jonnu Smith: 8.71
- Mark Andrews: 8.70
- Darren Waller: 8.65
- Tyler Higbee: 8.44
Pretty good list, no?
The problem with Smith is not talent. It’s opportunity. In any given week, it’s hard to know whether he’ll score a touchdown or luck into more than his usual amount of targets.
But at least this week he has a matchup he can win.
For the Bears, starting safeties Tashaun Gipson (foot) and Eddie Jackson (knee) are both injured. They will likely play but will not be at peak capacity.
Additionally, neither has played particularly well this year.
- Tashaun Gipson (eight games): 57.9 PFF coverage grade | 81.8% catch rate | 8.5 yards per target
- Eddie Jackson (eight games): 57.0 PFF coverage grade | 82.4% catch rate | 12.0 yards per target
Tight ends comparable to Smith have had success against the Bears.
- T.J. Hockenson (Week 1): 16.6 PPR, 11.6 STD | 5-56-1, five targets
- Evan Engram (Week 2): 12.5 PPR, 6.5 STD | 6-65-0, eight targets
- Hayden Hurst (Week 3): 7.1 PPR, 6.1 STD | 1-1-1, three targets
- Rob Gronkowski (Week 5): 8.2 PPR, 5.2 STD | 3-52-0, six targets
- Gerald Everett (Week 7): 12.8 PPR, 8.8 STD | 4-28-1, five targets
- Jared Cook (Week 8): 16.1 PPR, 11.1 STD | 5-51-1, seven targets
In quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s 17 regular-season starts with the Titans, the over is 14-2-1, good for a nice 69.0% return on investment (ROI, per our Bet Labs database). You can bet on this game at DraftKings.
I’m betting on points to be scored, some of which could trickle down to Smith.
Smith is a volatile low-end TE1 in season-long leagues and the No. 1 tight end in the CSURAM88 and Freedman Models for DraftKings.
Greg Olsen: Seattle Seahawks (-3) at Buffalo Bills (54.5 O/U)
About 5-10 times per year — it varies annually — the SportsGeek Model spits out a tight end I would never dream of rostering.
And in maybe one-third of those instances, the guy in question ends up going off. I’ve learned to hold my nose, write the blurbs and look for the underlying factors the Model might be emphasizing.
So let’s look at Olsen.
First of all, he’s still alive. That’s a plus. Probably.
OK, here’s the thing — actually, two things.
- I don’t want to write about Olsen, and I doubt you want to read about him.
- Olsen (foot) suffered an injury in Week 8. He got in a limited practice on Thursday, but he missed practice on Wednesday. He will probably play, but the idea of investing in a dad-running 35-year-old veteran with a lower-extremity injury is downright loathsome.
There’s no chance I will have Olsen in any of my lineups this weekend.
But his matchup should be noted. Opposing tight end units are No. 5 in the league against the Bills with 10.4 fantasy points per game on 47-509-6 receiving.
No. 1 coverage linebacker Matt Milano (pectoral) has been battling an injury all season. He played just 15 snaps last week and missed Wednesday and Thursday’s practices. He’s far from certain to play.
In the three games Milano has missed this year, tight ends have destroyed the Bills defense.
- Mike Gesicki (Week 2): 27.0 PPR, 19.0 STD | 8-130-1, 11 targets
- Jonnu Smith (Week 5): 21.0 PPR, 16.0 STD | 5-40-2, seven targets
- Travis Kelce (Week 6): 21.5 PPR, 16.5 STD | 5-65-2, seven targets
Olsen isn’t Kelce, Smith or Gesicki, but he’s probably still good enough to put up 50 yards and a touchdown against a Milano-less defense — if he gets the targets.
Full disclosure: I’m betting on the Seahawks. With quarterback Russell Wilson, they are 73-55-7 against the spread (ATS, 11.0% ROI).
I know that the Seahawks are a West Coast team traveling east and playing in the early game, which theoretically means they should have some sort of biorhythmic disadvantage, but I’m not worried. There might have been an edge with that angle years ago, but nowadays the market tends to account for cross-country travel.
In fact, bettors now might put too much weight on the west-to-east angle, creating value on the team that should be hindered. With the Seahawks, head coach Pete Carroll has had 24 East Coast games with a start time of 1 p.m. ET. He’s 14-7-3 ATS (27.5% ROI).
I expect the Seahawks to put up points, and that bodes well for Olsen (in theory). You can bet on this game at FanDuel.
Olsen is a desperation TE2 with upside in season-long leagues and the No. 1 quarterback in the SportsGeek Model for DraftKings.
Tight Ends With Week-Winning Upside
In this section, I highlight some tight ends I think will outperform expectations and whom I especially like as upside season-long and DFS tournament plays.
Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs (-10) vs. Carolina Panthers (52.5 O/U): The Chiefs have a slate-high 31.75-point implied Vegas total. Kelce is No. 1 at the position with 97.6 AirYAC per game, and he makes a good stacking partner with quarterback Patrick Mahomes, given that he has a 0.76 correlation with his passers since 2014 (per our FantasyLabs Correlations Tool). The Panthers intrigue as a road dog off a loss, as such teams this year are 24-13-0 ATS (25.6% ROI). You can bet on this game at William Hill.
But that’s not about to dissuade me from Kelce: He leads all tight ends in our Models with his median, ceiling and floor projections.
T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings (Off the Board): No. 1 wide receiver Kenny Golladay (hip) is out, so Hockenson could see more volume, and he hit season-high marks last week with 10 targets, seven receptions and 65 yards. Hockenson has been no worse than a fantasy TE2 in every game this year.
Hockenson is No. 2 behind only Travis Kelce in Hayden Winks’ Week 9 Usage Model.
Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens (-1.5) at Indianapolis Colts (48 O/U): I have to write a blurb on Mark Andrews because he’s Mark Andrews. This is that blurb. Andrews is No. 6 at the position with 69.0 AirYAC per game. And now this very nice blurb is done.
Noah Fant, Denver Broncos (+4) at Atlanta Falcons (50 O/U): No. 1 perimeter receiver Tim Patrick (hamstring) missed Week 8 and is uncertain for Week 9. The Falcons have allowed a league-high 12.7 fantasy points per game to tight ends on 50-534-8 receiving. Fant has 16 targets in two games since returning from his ankle injury.
Evan Engram, New York Giants (+2.5) at Washington Football Team (42.5 O/U): As unbelievable as this sounds, Engram has 19 targets over the past two weeks. He’s No. 5 at the position with 11.6 expected fantasy points per game, and he has a great matchup against the Footballers, who rank No. 32 with a 50.4% pass-defense DVOA against tight ends. Engram is the No. 1 player at the position in Josh Hermsmeyer’s Week 9 Air Yards Buy-Low Model.
Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons (-4) vs. Denver Broncos (50 O/U): Wide receiver Calvin Ridley (foot) seems unlikely to play, so Hurst could get extra targets. He has amazingly been a fantasy TE1 in 62% of his games so far.
Through eight games, Hurst’s 2018 Austin Hooper impersonation has been on point.
Logan Thomas, Washington Football Team (-2.5) vs. New York Giants (42.5 O/U): In quarterback Kyle Allen’s two starts, Thomas is 7-102-2 receiving on eight targets, and he has 5.7 targets per game for the season. Not one Giants safety has a PFF coverage grade of even 60.0.
Trey Burton, Indianapolis Colts (+1.5) vs. Baltimore Ravens (48 O/U): No. 1 wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (groin) exited Week 8 early and is highly uncertain for Week 9. Since his activation from IR, Burton is 14-116-1 receiving on 20 targets and 2-3-2 rushing in four games. That is, sadly, enough to make him intriguing.
Without strong safety Earl Thomas (released this offseason), the Ravens are weaker against tight ends than they were last year, now ranking No. 22 against the position with a 15.0% pass-defense DVOA.
Albert Okwuegbunam, Denver Broncos (+4) at Atlanta Falcons (50 O/U): Even with Fant on the field, Albert O. could put up fantasy points against the Falcons, who are No. 30 with a 27.5% pass-defense DVOA against tight ends. He played just 16 snaps last week, but Okwuegbunam (pronounced Oak-woo-AYE-boo-nom) turned his only target into a touchdown, and he has a strong 8.1 yards per target over the past three weeks (his only games active).
He’s a viable upside play for desperate managers in deep leagues. With his physical profile and draft capital, Okwuegbunam is most comparable to young Jimmy Graham.
The Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs, Freedman is commonly called the Oracle & the Labyrinthian.
Pictured above: Darren Waller.
Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images.