The Week 4 NFL main slate kicks off on Sunday, Oct. 4, at 1 p.m. ET.
In this piece, I highlight the tight ends who stand out in our large suite of analytical fantasy tools, most specifically our FantasyLabs Models.
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Top Tight Tends in the FantasyLabs Models
There are four tight ends atop the individual Pro Models that Jonathan Bales, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Adam Levitan, Sean Koerner, Chris Raybon, Kevin McClelland (SportsGeek) and I have constructed.
Here’s where they place within our Week 4 fantasy football rankings (as of Thursday afternoon).
- Travis Kelce: No. 1 (PPR) | No. 1 (Half PPR) | No. 1 (Standard)
- Darren Waller: No. 2 (PPR) | No. 2 (Half PPR) | No. 2 (Standard)
- Tyler Higbee: No. 13 (PPR) | No. 13 (Half PPR) | No. 12 (Standard)
- Dalton Schultz: No. 15 (PPR) | No. 15 (Half PPR) | No. 16 (Standard)
FantasyLabs Positional Breakdowns
Check in throughout the week as I publish the rest of the positional breakdowns.
For more in-depth NFL analysis, check out The Action Network. For updates, see our FantasyLabs News Feed.
Odds as of Friday afternoon and via DraftKings Sportsbook, where you can get up to a $1,000 sign-up bonus today.
Travis Kelce: Kansas City Chiefs (-6.5) vs. New England Patriots, 53 Over/Under
No tight end in NFL history has more 1,000-yard seasons than Kelce, who this year has been just as dominant as ever at the soon-to-be age of 31.
- Week 3 (at BAL): 14.7 PPR, 8.7 STD | 6-87-0 receiving, seven targets
- Week 2 (at LAC): 24.0 PPR, 15.0 STD | 9-90-1 receiving, 14 targets
- Week 1 (vs. HOU): 17.0 PPR, 11.0 STD | 6-50-1 receiving, six targets
Since quarterback Patrick Mahomes became the full-time starter in 2018, Kelce has been a fantasy TE1 in 86% of his regular-season games (per the RotoViz NFL Stat Explorer).
Within this time frame, Kelce has been no better than a fantasy TE3 in only two games: Week 1 of 2018 and Week 17 of 2019.
Both of those games were against the Chargers and specifically All-Pro strong safety Derwin James.
Given that Kelce won’t be running routes against James in this game, he should be his usual productive self.
Kelce still has a tough matchup: The Patriots aren’t pushovers. Last year, they allowed just 6.8 fantasy points per game to tight ends and were No. 7 with a -10.6% pass-defense DVOA against the position (per Football Outsiders).
This year, the Patriots are even more stringent, allowing 4.4 points per game to tight ends and ranking No. 2 against the position with a -96.2% pass-defense DVOA.
But I’m pessimistic that the Pats will stop Kelce. They might slow him down, but they’re unlikely to stop him.
In Kelce’s three games with Mahomes against the Patriots, he has displayed something pretty close to his usual preeminence.
- Week 14, 2019: 18.0 PPR, 11.0 STD | 7-66-0 receiving, nine targets | 1-4-1 rushing
- AFC Championship, 2018-19: 11.3 PPR, 8.3 STD | 3-23-1 receiving, five targets
- Week 6, 2018: 11.1 PPR, 6.1 STD | 5-61-0 receiving, nine targets
Why on earth would we expect Zeus not to throw lightning bolts against a formidable foe?
In each season with Mahomes at quarterback, Kelce has been the No. 1 tight end in air yards and yards after the catch (AirYAC) per game (per RotoViz Player Statistical Summary). AirYAC is a leading indicator of fantasy output, so it’s not a surprise that Kelce has been a top producer since 2018.
- 2020 (three games): 18.6 PPR (1st), 11.6 STD (2nd) | 93.3 AirYAC (1st)
- 2019 (16 games): 16.0 PPR (1st), 10.0 STD (1st) | 102.1 AirYAC (1st)
- 2018 (16 games): 18.5 PPR (1st), 12.1 STD (1st) | 121.4 AirYAC (1st)
What else really needs to be said?
Kelce is a must-start top-three tight end every week in season-long leagues.
In DFS, Kelce feels expensive for cash games, but he’s a reasonable pay-up option for guaranteed prize pools. Over the past half decade, Kelce has had a 0.76 correlation with his quarterback (per our FantasyLabs Correlations Tool). If Kelce has a big game, Mahomes probably will too. For tournaments, use our Lineup Builder to stack Kelce with his passer.
Kelce is the No. 1 tight end in the CSURAM88, Koerner and Raybon Models for FanDuel, where he has position-high median, ceiling and floor projections.
Salaries: $6,800 DraftKings, $7,600 FanDuel
Darren Waller: Las Vegas Raiders (+3) vs. Buffalo Bills, 52.5 O/U
If we look only at his 2020 production, it’s hard to know what to think of Waller. In Week 1, he was acceptable. In Week 2, phenomenal. Week 3, horrible.
- Week 3 (at NE): 2.9 PPR, 0.9 STD | 2-9-0 receiving, four targets
- Week 2 (vs. NO): 28.5 PPR, 16.5 STD | 12-105-1 receiving, 16 targets
- Week 1 (at CAR): 10.5 PPR, 4.5 STD | 6-45-0 receiving, eight targets
But if we zoom out and look at Waller with a wider analytical lens, taking in everything he has done since breaking out, the picture becomes clear.
Waller has been a fantasy TE1 in 63% of his games since last year, and in only game — last week’s Patriots-induced calamity — has Waller not been at least a TE2.
It’s reasonable to expect a bounceback this week, especially given the strength of Waller’s peripherals.
Among all tight ends, Waller is No. 1 with 28 targets, a 30% target share, a 0.62 WOPR and 16.5 expected fantasy points receiving per game.
WOPR (Weighted Opportunity Rating) is a stat created by Josh Hermsmeyer. It combines market shares of targets and air yards.
With that kind of usage, Waller is almost destined to finish the season as a top-eight tight end, and that feels low given his AirYAC and how comparable it is to last year’s number.
- 2020 (three games): 13.9 PPR (6th), 7.2 STD (13th) | 86.0 AirYAC (4th)
- 2019 (16 games): 13.9 PPR (6th), 8.3 STD (8th) | 89.1 AirYAC (3rd)
In his 2019 breakout, Waller was No. 1 on the Raiders in almost every major receiving category with 7.3 targets, 5.6 receptions, 71.6 yards and 89.1 AirYAC per game.
This year, he has sustained his dominance and still ranks No. 1 on the team with 9.3 targets, 6.7 receptions, 52.3 yards and 86.0 AirYAC per game.
It’s hard for a tight end to be positioned any better for fantasy success.
The one drawback with Waller is that his matchup isn’t good. Although tight end Mike Gesicki went off against the Bills in Week 2 with 8-130-1 receiving on 11 targets, the Bills were without top linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds in that game.
With Milano and Edmunds, the Bills held Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett to 4-74-0 receiving in Week 3 and Chris Herndon to 6-37-0 receiving in Week 1. And last year, opposing tight end units were No. 30 in the league with just 5.5 fantasy points per game.
And for the game, I’m gustatorily betting on the Bills. Even with their Week 3 victory, I think the market hasn’t reacted enough to what we’ve seen out of the Bills this season. On top of that, I expect the Raiders to have even less of a home-field advantage than the average non-attendance team in this COVID-impacted season, given that they just moved to Vegas this offseason and the players are still acclimating to the city and stadium.
And the Bills have been good on the road under head coach Sean McDermott, going 14-9-2 against the spread (ATS) as the visiting team, good for an 16.2% return on investment (ROI, per our Bet Labs database).
And in quarterback Josh Allen’s road starts, the Bills are 9-3-2 ATS (38.3% ROI).
This isn’t a situation in which I’m blindly optimistic about Waller or backing the Raiders: I expect the Bills to win.
And that’s a positive for Waller. As an underdog, he has had beneficial splits, getting more targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns (per RotoViz Game Splits App).
In his 10 losses, Waller has averaged 15.7 PPR and 9.7 standard points per game. In nine wins, 11.9 and 6.4.
Waller is actually advantaged as an underdog and in defeat.
He has a tough matchup, but it will likely be counterbalanced and possibly outweighed by a heavy workload. Starting perimeter receivers Henry Ruggs III (hamstring) and Bryan Edwards (ankle) are both dealing with injuries. Edwards has already been ruled out, and Ruggs is yet to return to practice.
In their absence, Waller could have unprecedented volume. Quarterback Derek Carr will need to throw to someone, and Waller will be his best option on the majority of pass plays.
Even with the matchup, Waller is a top-five tight end in season-long leagues, and in DFS he is a strong option for cash games and tournaments, especially on DraftKings, where he has the No. 7 salary but the Nos. 3 median and ceiling projections.
Priced lower than he has been at any point since Week 7 last year, Waller is the unanimous top tight end in our Models for DraftKings, where he has a position-high nine Pro Trends.
For good measure, Waller is also the No. 1 tight end in the Bales and Levitan Models for FanDuel.
Salaries: $5,200 DraftKings, $6,700 FanDuel
Tyler Higbee: Los Angeles Rams (-12.5) vs. New York Giants, 48 O/U
For the third week in a row, Higbee is popping in one of our Models, and honestly I don’t like it. What’s worse, it’s the Freedman Model.
Wherever you go, there you are.
For Higbee, 2020 is a season of feast and famine.
- Week 3 (at BUF): 8.0 PPR, 6.0 STD | 2-40-0 receiving, two targets | two-point conversion
- Week 2 (at PHI): 28.4 PPR, 23.4 STD | 5-54-3 receiving, five targets
- Week 1 (vs. DAL): 7.0 PPR, 4.0 STD | 3-40-0 receiving, four targets
In Week 2, Higbee had a slate-winning performance, but in Weeks 1 & 3 he was absolutely nowhere.
Some healthy skepticism is warranted. As I’ve said for the past two weeks, with Higbee the question isn’t talent or matchup. It’s simply volume — and Higbee hasn’t had it for the first three games of the season.
His snap and route rates have dropped each week (per Pro Football Focus).
- Week 3 (at BUF): 72.4% snap rate | 43.2% route rate
- Week 2 (at PHI): 85.5% snap rate | 53.1% route rate
- Week 1 (vs. DAL): 89.0% snap rate | 62.9% route rate
Yikes. Higbee’s peripherals are bad.
Because Higbee has a position-high three touchdowns, he has been a top-five producer this season, ranking No. 1 with 20.8 fantasy points receiving over expectation.
But that type of “running hot” production is unsustainable unless he sees a massive increase in opportunity, because right now he ranks No. 22 with a 13% target share, 11 targets and 22.6 expected fantasy points receiving.
He’s also No. 22 with 50.7 AirYAC per game.
Based on the stats that are actually predictive, Higbee has been on the low end of mediocre this year.
Hibgee is basically Texans tight end Jordan Akins with more touchdowns.
- Tyler Higbee (three games): 10-134-3 receiving, 11 targets
- Jordan Akins (three games): 11-122-1 receiving, 12 targets
It’s hard to predict goal-line opportunities and end-zone targets. What happens if Higbee stops scoring touchdowns and turns into the guy who can barely beat out Daniel Fells?
A lot of tight end scoring is driven by the randomness of touchdowns, and that’s just something we have to accept. But the truly great fantasy tight ends are the guys who can produce without touchdowns. Guys like Travis Kelce and George Kittle — and Higbee last year in Weeks 13-17.
In the final five games of the 2019 season, when he saw a dramatic increase in playing time, Higbee radically exceeded expectations in every game and was easily the No. 1 fantasy tight end (per our FantasyLabs Trends Tool).
In every game he was no worse than a mid-tier fantasy TE1.
And perhaps most impressively, Higbee got his production the old-fashioned way. Instead of scoring a ton of fluky touchdowns, he piled up the yards.
In Weeks 13-17, Higbee was No. 1 at the position with 132 AirYAC per game. He was utterly dominant.
That’s just not the guy we’ve seen in Weeks 1-3.
There’s nothing especially notable about his matchup with the Giants, who have two professional albeit unremarkable box safeties in Jabrill Peppers and Logan Ryan.
The matchup doesn’t matter.
What matters is Higbee’s volume, and until he sees more of it, he’s a risk-seeking TE2 with touchdown-driven TE1 upside in season-long leagues and a GPP-only play in DFS.
I suppose it helps that the Rams have a slate-high 30.75-point implied Vegas total: The more points to go around, the better Higbee’s odds are of scoring a touchdown.
If you must roster him, do so on FanDuel, where he has a position-high 99% Bargain Rating.
Salaries: $5,700 DraftKings, $6,000 FanDuel
Dalton Schultz: Dallas Cowboys (-4.5) vs. Cleveland Browns, 56 O/U
Schultz has flashed as the injury fill-in for starter Blake Jarwin (knee, IR), who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1.
- Week 3 (at SEA): 8.8 PPR, 4.8 STD | 4-48-0 receiving, six targets
- Week 2 (vs. ATL): 21.8 PPR, 12.8 STD | 9-88-1 receiving, 10 targets
- Week 1 (at LAR): 2.1 PPR, 1.1 STD | 1-11-0 receiving, four targets
In Week 2, Schultz had a 71.1% route rate in his first game as a starter, and although that dropped to 57.8% in Week 3 as the Cowboys relied more on four-wide receiver sets, I think that had more to do with matchups than with Schultz himself.
Playing from behind, the Cowboys put themselves in a better position last week by having No. 4 wide receiver Cedrick Wilson run routes against an injury-depleted Seahawks cornerback unit instead of having Schultz run routes against safeties Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs.
This week, Schultz will likely see something similar to his Week 2 usage, and against the Browns, that should be enough to make him dangerous.
This year, opposing tight end units are No. 4 against the Browns with 12.0 fantasy points per game on 22-179-3 receiving with 31 targets.
Top coverage linebacker Mack Wilson (knee) missed Weeks 1-2 and played just six snaps last week. He’s uncertain to suit up. The team is also without All-American rookie safety Grant Delpit (Achilles, IR), who suffered a season-ending injury in training camp.
And gone from last year’s team are linebackers Joe Schobert and Christian Kirksey and safeties Damarious Randall and Morgan Burnett.
It’s not a surprise that the Browns are bad against tight ends.
And Schultz has more than just the matchup going for him. The Cowboys-Browns game has a slate-high 56-point over/under, so Schultz could see inflated target volume in a high-scoring pass-heavy fast-paced back-and-forth punch-out.
The Cowboys are No. 1 in the league with 145 pass attempts, 96 completions, 1,188 yards passing and 19.69 seconds per play.
Pro-Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith (neck) has missed the past two games, but he is tentatively expected to return in Week 4, so as good as this offense has recently been, it might be even better on Sunday.
Any pass catcher in this offense has the chance to go off, and with wide receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb occupying the Browns defense, Schultz could have a daydream performance against pillow-soft coverage.
From a betting perspective, HC Mike McCarthy has historically exceeded expectations as a home favorite, going 53-35-4 ATS (17.3% ROI).
The stars are aligning.
Schultz is No. 6 at the position with 12.1 expected fantasy points receiving per game. In this offense, opportunity is everything.
Schultz is an upside TE2 in season-long leagues and a viable mid-priced option in DFS. He is the top tight end in the SportsGeek Model for FanDuel.
Salaries: $4,300 DraftKings, $4,900 FanDuel
Tight Ends With Week-Winning Upside
In this section, I highlight some of the tight ends I especially like as upside season-long and DFS tournament plays.
Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens (-13.5) at Washington Football Team, 45.5 O/U: Despite ranking No. 4 at the position with a 23% target share, Andrews has minorly underwhelmed in 2020. But he’s on the positive side of his splits as a favorite …
… and opposing tight end units are No. 6 against the Footballers with 11.8 fantasy points per game. Salaries: $6,000 DraftKings, $7,400 FanDuel.
Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins (+6) vs. Seattle Seahawks, 54 O/U: Strong safety Jamal Adams (groin) looks unlikely to play, and slot corner Marquise Blair (knee, IR) is out, so the inline-averse Gesicki should have an advantageous matchup. With a team-high 20% target share, Gesicki is No. 5 among tight ends with 83.3 AirYAC per game. Salaries: $5,100 DraftKings, $5,700 FanDuel.
T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions (+4.5) vs. New Orleans Saints, 54.5 O/U: Opposing tight ends are No. 1 in the league against the Saints with 17.7 fantasy points per game on 29-290-4 receiving. Son of Hocken has a position-high +3.29 Projected Plus/Minus on FanDuel. Salaries: $4,800 DraftKings, $5,400 FanDuel.
Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers (+7) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, O/U 43: No. 2 wide receiver Mike Williams (hamstring) is unlikely to play, so Henry could see extra targets. He’s No. 2 among tight ends with 92.7 AirYAC per game. Salaries: $4,600 DraftKings, $6,100 FanDuel.
Logan Thomas, Washington Football Team (+13.5) vs. Baltimore Ravens, 45.5 O/U: The quarterback-turned-tight end hasn’t blown anyone away with his 12-94-1 receiving stat line, but he’s No. 2 at the position with a 24% target share. He should benefit from a pass-heavy game script, and opposing tight end units are No. 5 against the Ravens with 11.8 fantasy points per game now that safety Earl Thomas is gone and Jimmy Smith has shifted back to cornerback. Salaries: $3,500 DraftKings, $4,900 FanDuel.
Jordan Akins, Houston Texans (-4) vs. Minnesota Vikings, 53.5 O/U: The arbitrage version of Tyler Higbee. The Vikings didn’t have a normal week of practice because of the league’s COVID-19 protocols, so they might be prone to broken coverages. Salaries: $3,500 DraftKings, $4,900 FanDuel.
Ian Thomas, Carolina Panthers (+3) vs. Arizona Cardinals, 51 O/U: Last year, the Cardinals were a “flow chart matchup” for tight ends, rankings No. 32 with a 28.2% pass-defense DVOA against the position. And how different could the world really be in 2020? Salaries: $3,000 DraftKings, $4,400 FanDuel.
Dan Arnold, Arizona Cardinals (-3) at Carolina Panthers, 51 O/U: There are no desperate times that ever call for desperate measures. There are only desperate people and the reckless lengths they will go to indulge their despondency. Salaries: $2,700 DraftKings, $4,300 FanDuel.
Matthew Freedman is the Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs. He has a dog and sometimes a British accent. In Rosemount, Minnesota, he’s known only as The Labyrinthian.
Pictured above: Travis Kelce #87 of the Kansas City Chiefs
Photo credit: Elsa/Getty Images