Finding 2020's League-Winning Fantasy Tight Ends Through Season Simulations

Few things in fantasy football feel better than having your roster's tight end spot locked down with an every-week starter.

But those players generally come with a pretty significant draft cost. You want Travis Kelce? You want George Kittle? You'll need to take them in the first two rounds (based on Bestball10 average draft position).

That sometimes comes at the expense of a top-tier running back and receiver, and those first few rounds are generally where league-winners come from.

So what do we do? Can we just replace elite upside by streaming weekly? If not, where do top-eight fantasy tight ends come from so that we can just set it and forget it? To find out, I simulated the 2020 season 10,000 times to see what we can learn.

Projections, Simulations, and Historical Precedent

I discussed this in my pieces on quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers so far, but it's vital that we discuss it again for the last time in the series.

While building projections has a ton of value, it's very easy to get caught up in the details -- details that don't really matter over one iteration of a season. That isn't to say that we should never try to project correct rates and market shares but rather to remind us that a single, median projection (or fantasy ranking) doesn't ever account for the realities of an NFL season.

Tight ends, in particular, get separated out by volume (for the elite players) and then generally touchdowns as we get farther down the list. Touchdown rates are one of the hardest things to get "right" in the preseason, and we'll never hit them with 100% accuracy.

That's why I've just started preferring using ranges of outcomes from median projections to look at upcoming seasons.

So that we're clear, I use numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) data and average target depth to project yards per target and catch rate, as this has proven to be more fruitful when projecting out future rate stats, such as yards per target and touchdown rate.

Using this, I have my median projections for this year -- which I audit against consensus projections and ranks to check for any significant outliers -- and can now apply historical ranges of outcomes to them to see how the season may play out.

Tweaks to individual variance stem from touchdown expectations and overall offensive performance. That's not an exact science, but everything is on par with consensus -- for the most part -- and tight end has proven to be reliably volatile anyway.

Here are historical hit and bust rates for tight ends, bucketed by average draft position tiers (data comes from MyFantasyLeague). If the projections and historical ranges are in the ballpark, the sims will look something like this (they do).

Finish Tier Odds
by ADP (2013-2019)
Worse Than TE16
TE1-4 53.6% 71.4% 82.1% 17.9%
TE5-8 10.7% 35.7% 46.4% 42.9%
TE9-12 14.3% 46.4% 71.4% 17.9%
TE13-16 10.7% 17.9% 42.9% 46.4%
TE17-20 7.1% 14.3% 28.6% 50.0%
TE21-24 4.0% 8.0% 20.0% 76.0%

One of the things that has plagued me most is seeing that the Tier 2 tight ends (TE5-8) have just performed worse than the Tier 3 tight ends (TE9-12) over the past few years. It's really hard to project for that, and the bigger point is almost assuredly that we probably overestimate our ability to pinpoint the best non-elite tight ends.

Players in that general TE5-8 range (players such as Zach Ertz, Darren Waller, Evan Engram, Tyler Higbee, Hunter Henry, and Austin Hooper) historically haven't necessarily been better than the players drafted just behind them. That being said, those at the top of the second tier for me (Ertz, Waller, and Engram) are more like Tier 1.5 based on projections, though that could very easily be incorrect and misplaced confidence. Perhaps Waller and Engram are a bit of a stay-away unless they slip in the draft.

Because this is so problematic, I want to figure it out first before moving past it.

Who were the tight ends drafted as TE4 through TE13 last year? O.J. Howard (hyped up and busted), Hunter Henry (post-injury hype up but was TE9 despite only 12 games), Jared Cook (new team hype and 9 touchdowns en route to a TE7 season), Vance McDonald (efficiency hype but stuck in a limited role), David Njoku (coming off TE8 season and then played only four games), Austin Hooper (finished as TE6), T.J. Hockenson (rookie hype inflating draft cost), Kyle Rudolph (coming off TE9 season and finished as TE13), Greg Olsen (an at-the-time injury concern), and Trey Burton (the prior TE6 who battled injury and played 8 games).

With hindsight, not a very appealing tier of 10 players. We feel way more confident about this year's crop of tight ends. Should we, though?

If we view draft cost as a left-to-right list, we'd kind of see a "U" emerge in those bust rates.

We have Kelce, Kittle, and whomever else you place in that general tier before a drop in the TE5-8 range -- this would be the bottom of the "U." However, "U" trends back up historically before it falls off again to that TE13-16 range.

Basically, even if we don't know which of the Tier 2 and Tier 3 tight ends pan out, we do know that when they do, they're way better assets than the guys being drafted outside the top 16 or so, who have too many question marks to overcome.

I worked to account for this the best that I could and simulated out the season 10,000 times to figure out where the real upside lies in this year's tight end class.

Simulation Results

Aside from the really strange results from those Tier 2 tight ends (which is a blend of upside lottery tickets and overreactions to an outlier previous season), it was pretty easy to get this year's sims to look like historical rates.

As usual, you can disagree with my projections. It's fine. All I'm really looking for is who might have top-four or top-eight upside based on preseason projections. The real point here is that a lot of tight ends will be projected for similar point totals, and we have to account for that. We also just don't often see tight ends outside the top 10 in preseason expectations finish as a top-four, league-winner often.

The table here is sorted by the odds a specific player finished as a top-four tight end in the simulations.

Player Top-4 Top-8 Top-12 Worse Than TE16
Travis Kelce 77.3% 87.0% 91.1% 6.6%
George Kittle 63.0% 76.2% 82.5% 14.1%
Mark Andrews 52.0% 67.8% 76.2% 19.5%
Darren Waller 31.1% 58.6% 75.8% 16.3%
Zach Ertz 29.0% 57.5% 74.2% 17.8%
Evan Engram 27.0% 55.5% 73.2% 18.8%
Tyler Higbee 15.1% 41.0% 61.3% 27.7%
Hunter Henry 13.7% 38.8% 59.9% 28.7%
Noah Fant 12.3% 30.0% 45.0% 44.9%
Rob Gronkowski 11.1% 29.7% 46.3% 43.4%
Jared Cook 10.0% 26.5% 42.0% 47.8%
Austin Hooper 9.7% 31.1% 50.9% 37.1%
TJ Hockenson 7.4% 24.0% 41.3% 47.8%
Jack Doyle 7.4% 23.4% 40.0% 48.3%
Hayden Hurst 6.4% 21.2% 36.9% 52.3%
Dallas Goedert 5.4% 18.7% 35.1% 53.1%
Mike Gesicki 5.3% 20.1% 36.5% 52.1%
Blake Jarwin 4.0% 16.2% 31.5% 56.4%
Eric Ebron 3.7% 15.6% 31.3% 57.5%
Jonnu Smith 2.7% 12.9% 27.0% 61.5%
Irv Smith 2.3% 11.3% 24.1% 65.6%
Chris Herndon 1.1% 7.3% 18.5% 71.3%
Greg Olsen 1.0% 6.8% 17.4% 72.8%
Jace Sternberger 0.8% 5.8% 16.4% 73.3%
Ian Thomas 0.4% 3.3% 11.2% 79.9%
Jimmy Graham 0.3% 2.7% 8.8% 83.5%
CJ Uzomah 0.2% 2.3% 8.1% 84.2%
Dawson Knox 0.2% 3.0% 9.8% 81.9%
Kyle Rudolph 0.2% 1.3% 5.6% 88.4%
Tyler Eifert 0.1% 1.8% 7.2% 85.6%

First things first: Kelce, Kittle, and Mark Andrews are in a bit of a tier of their own for me, as you can tell. If you're not sold on Andrews (and/or Ertz), then what we're really looking at this year is a two-man show for TE1 in a majority of the sims. Then it's kind of a dice roll to see which of that Tier 1.5 group busts (likely from injury) or pans out.

Again, history suggests that we get overconfident with the non-elite preseason tight ends.

However, it's easy to project a few of them with significantly more volume than the players directly behind them, and that shouldn't be ignored (unless you don't view them as such safe bets to own better volume projections than the others).

To make that statement more tangible, it's probably safe to say there's a difference between volume projections between Evan Engram (7.3 targets per game in his career) this year and O.J. Howard last year (3.7 targets per game in his career entering 2019).

In this regard, I think this is still a matter of personal preference. How big is the gap for you between Darren Waller, Evan Engram, and Zach Ertz and Tyler Higbee, Hunter Henry, and Rob Gronkowski? For me, it's sizable enough due to volume rather than inflated touchdown confidence.

After that? We get into that shrug territory. What separates someone like Tyler Higbee and Jared Cook? Historically, not much. This is what we need to get better with as drafters, based on the data. I'm not pretending that Michael Gesicki is just as valuable as Zach Ertz, but at a certain point, the tight end drops, rises, and drops again.

I'm not the first to say that if you aren't the first to draft a tight end, it's probably okay to be the last, so long as you aren't slipping down into TE15 territory in a 10- or 12-team league.

Higbee at 84th overall or Hayden Hurst, Noah Fant, or Gesicki in the 110 range? The data suggests that the latter trio is a better investment, generally.

This goes back to a few things about tight ends: they're volatile because of touchdowns and injuries. It's also now a deeper position than it has been.

So, while -- yes -- a good number of tight ends have a general, anecdotal case to finish as a top-four option, that just muddies the waters for projecting any single one for an elite season. You can make the case for Hockenson to make the jump, but he's got a lot of other competition to outperform in order to finish as a significant game-changer.


We've seen the likelihood of getting a "league-winning" running back and receiver drop dramatically after the first few rounds, and we see a similar vibe here with tight ends.

The best of the best are valued as such for a reason, and it's really hard to predict a top-four result for those outside the top five or six due to a lot of reasons -- mostly the fact that there are about a dozen tight ends projected in a cluster, and we just shouldn't waste picks at the top of that tier (or the bottom of that "U").

I won't lie, though, tight end has proven to be the toughest position to project out (tougher even than running back, I think) because of the historical precedent that we've seen.

If you're not taking the first or second tight end in the draft, your Tyler Higbee types may not really be worth the gamble. Higbee, Henry, Hooper -- they all have risk. The same can be said for Cook, Gronk, Hurst, Gesicki, and Fant. If history repeats itself, then a few of these situations are likely: Higbee's one-year burst will prove to be less sticky than we'd hope, Henry will struggle to stay healthy, and Hooper won't adjust to the new offense as well as we may expect. Don't be too confident here. The upside really isn't there to take the risk on these less proven tight ends.

To put everything together from this series, we should be targeting backs and receivers in the first two rounds but be open to Kelce and Kittle at the tail end of the second, assuming that we see a drop off at those two primary positions.

Rounds three and four should feature more backs and receivers, again, unless Kelce and Kittle fall.

Rounds five and six? More backs and receivers while considering some of those legit shots at a QB1 season in the middle rounds (such as Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, and Deshaun Watson).

If one of those Tier 1.5 tight ends falls, I think that we can ignore history a bit and trust the volume for the Ertz types. If not, just keep loading up on backs and receivers before grabbing a tight end with legitimate, projectable volume (i.e. don't settle for Chris Herndon, Jonnu Smith, or an afterthought tight end if you're in a standard-sized league).

In projecting out the season this way, I've found reason to change my general draft philosophy from "wait forever on quarterback and tight end" to "target the top-flight tight ends and quarterbacks but not at the expense of chances for elite backs and receivers -- and if I miss out on the mid-tier quarterbacks and tight ends -- then wait without being stupid and waiting so long that my tight end is dreadful".

If this has been your strategy all along, then congratulations.

But it's evident that we need to 1) embrace the risk of a first-round bust for a league-winning running back performance, 2) value the top-tier receivers as elite assets without over-projecting our ability to separate thee WR12 from the WR24, 3) take a shot at a rushing quarterback with significant passing production if we want the QB1, and 4) avoid reaching for tight ends at the expense of elite backs and receivers while also not neglecting the position and pretending like the TE17 can solve our tight end woes.

We don't know everything, and admitting it can help us win our leagues.