Using FireFactor to Dominate Your Fantasy League: Tight End Edition

Jimmy Graham is on another level compared to the rest of the tight ends in the league, but how should you value the rest of the position?

[This is the fourth and final installment of my exploration of FireFactor, which is our way of ranking players compared to replacement players at the same position. I already discussed it in detail here while applying the ranking to the quarterback position. I've also discussed the running backs using FireFactor and the wide receiver position as well.]

So far in the FireFactor series, we've seen that tight ends tend to be far less valuable than the other positions studied already.

It stands to reason that many fantasy advice-givers devalued the position accordingly, but when you check out a lot of big boards from fantasy experts, you'll see that Jimmy Graham might be a top-10 or top-15 player because a lot of people consider him to be in his own galaxy when compared to the rest of the position.

This might indicate that he should be valued as one of the best overall fantasy assets available and be drafted as such, inside the first half of the second round at the latest. After all, if he's "better" than, say, DeMarco Murray, then you should draft him before Murray and feel happy about it, right?

Well, even though tight end hype tends to taper off later in the rankings, the top tight ends tend to sneak inside the top 30 or so. This, to me, is a pitfall of traditional, big board (or overall) fantasy rankings. They don't necessarily adjust enough the fact that these players play different positions.

Before I continue, I have to foreground an important tangent: I respect and idolize these fantasy experts, who spend hours and hours to provide the masses with very sound analysis and who have played an integral role validating and making respectable my favorite hobby. This isn't a criticism of their analysis or rankings, but rather a call-to-action that more folks learn how to use their top-flight analysis to the fullest extent of fantasy success.

The more you know, the better you can be.

So let's dive in and take a look at the positional differences that exist within the tight end fantasy pool.

FireFactor and Tight Ends

There's been a surge in tight end usage recently in the NFL, and that has caused guys like Graham to post historic, ridiculous production from a position that used to be an afterthought in the passing game. If you think about it, this suggests that tight ends can provide more help to your fantasy team than they could a few years ago, but this now works on the back end, too.

The top tight ends nowadays can outproduce the top tight ends from previous decades, but the bottom tight ends are experiencing elevated production, too.

I'll help illustrate this point by providing the FireFactor scores and projected fantasy points from our fantasy football cheat sheet of the top 14 tight ends on our list. FireFactor scores relate to a 12-team league with 1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 2 receivers, 1 tight end, and 1 running back or receiver flex. The FireFactor score quantifies the advantage a player would give over a replacement-level player. (Check out a deeper explanation if you need it.)

Tight EndStandard FPFireFactorPPR FPFireFactor

This isn't about who to draft but rather to identify which positions provide advantages in your leagues, so names are irrelevant here. That being said, be sure to run the numbers for your league settings on our cheat sheet page to maximize the FireFactor's ability to help swing momentum in your favor.

Okay, so we all know who "TE1" is going to be, but after that, there's a very gradual decline from TE3 to TE14. I'm not saying that there's no difference between roughly 130 fantasy points and 90 over the course of the season, but that there are a lot of players in between who are very similar according to our projections.

This translates to a per-week basis and helps identify the narrow gap that exists in lower-ranked tight ends.

The Weekly Game

The tricky thing about tight ends can be pegging the fringe types on the right weeks and getting good production from them, but we'll go ahead and divvy up the total PPR projected points per week so that they can compare to the weekly discrepancies between running backs and receivers available in previous articles.

PPREstimated Weekly FPvs. TE1vs. TE4vs. TE8vs. TE14

It may seem like I've been trivializing the advantage Graham can give you on a weekly basis against weaker tight ends, but I don't mean to do so. It's real. You could expect at least five points over half the tight ends you'll face.

Just as important, note how slim the margin is between the rest of the tight ends. If you're stuck with TE14 production in a 12-team league, you'll be facing a setback be hurting against Graham, but during the other weeks of the season, you might be expected to lose by three points or so at the position against TE4 production. That's forgivable if you saved yourself a fourth-round pick on TE4 production.

Applying FireFactor to Your Fantasy Draft

Speaking of drafting, let's talk about it.

I could try my hardest to dissuade you from valuing Graham as a first-rounder, but I won't. He's pretty safe, and you can expect that he'll give you an edge over each team in your league at tight end. The numbers suggest you should go with a running back or receiver, but part of the fun of fantasy is doing what you want.

What do you do if you want Graham and miss him? Or what if you don't want him but don't want to be stuck playing the tight end guessing game each week? Well, taking someone like Vernon Davis in Round 6 might make you feel like you won't be stuck with trash at the position, but players slated to finish somewhere around TE6 give you almost no edge at all in the grand scheme of things.

With so many tight ends available who can score at least a few points per week, you may as well wait until a player with upside falls to you deep in the draft. You can always pick up another one later unless your league is super deep (but running your league settings through our cheat sheet will help you identify how to value tight ends in this instance).

Implementing FireFactor Into Your Fantasy Season

This chart is going to explain the rough equivalent of tight ends compared to other positions. This would be good for in-season trade comparisons, but once you see it, you'll know why drafting tight ends early just doesn't make sense mathematically.

FireFactor EquivalentFireFactorQBRBWR

I know this section is about in-season management, but let's apply it to the draft season very quickly. Taking, say, Vernon Davis in Round 6 provides an advantage at the tight end position that's roughly equivalent to the one you get from the 38th-best fantasy back in a league that could have 36 starting running backs.

Also, you wouldn't take a quarterback like Nick Foles in the second round, so why would you consider taking Julius Thomas there?

Keep this in mind when you feel inadequate at tight end this year. Tight ends just don't mean much in single tight end leagues, and having Graham is a smaller victory than you might hope when compared to having elite running backs and receivers.

Concluding Sentiments

Since this is the last of the FireFactor articles, I just wanted to recap some of the most telling information and some things to keep in mind during the draft and the season. Mainly, having even the most foolproof strategy doesn't help if you can't determine the right players. Conversely, if you think you can find a top-12 back in the middle of the draft, all the power to you. Finding inefficiencies between how your league mates value certain players and what you think the player's value is helps you avoid overspending and also helps you spend less on the guys you like.

The most important lesson, strategically, is that you should never forget that the advantage certain players tend to give you is contingent on the required number of starters in your league. If you play in a 12-team, non-PPR, four-point passing touchdown league with a receiver and running back flex (a pretty standard league), here's how having even the most elite player at each position would stack up.

Versus Baseline Startersvs. 12thvs. 24thvs. 36th

This exercise is great for seeing how depth affects value and how FireFactor works to compare players when all of this is considered. Startable quarterbacks and tight ends will, generally, finish within six points of one another in a standard league.

If you had, say, the best tight end and quarterback which you took at the turn of the first round (12th and 13th) you could have an 11.19-point advantage on average over my team, which has the worst starting quarterback and tight end. If you ended up with RB24 and RB30 since you drafted other positions early, you'd get 17.17 points per week from them. That's a total of 45.43 points from those four players.

If I drafted running backs early and they didn't live up to their draft price of 12th and 13th overall and ended up being just 12th and 18th, then congratulations, because your decision to avoid risky running backs paid off, and you locked up the sure things. But those backs would average 22.61 points per week.

With the QB12 and TE2 production, 15.92 and 6.07 points, that's 44.60 points. Even with basement-level quarterback and tight end production, the gap at running back (and receiver) basically negates the advantage of having elite options at single-starter positions.

Just remember that, while many first-round running backs failed last year, LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte were usually available around the turn of the first round.