Never Bury the Lede: The difference between Dalton Schultz’s schedule last year and his schedule this year is equivalent to a +1.4 point boost to his FPG average. Last season he finished 2.0 FPG behind the TE3 (Rob Gronkowski), but – if he had his 2022 schedule in 2021 – would have finished just 0.3 FPG behind the TE3.
Which tight ends have the toughest or easiest fantasy schedules this year? Which tight ends had the toughest or easiest schedules last year? Or, what about the toughest or easiest schedules in the fantasy postseason? Or to start the season? Which tight ends saw their schedules improve the most or least? How big of an impact was that change in schedule? Can we quantify that change in real terms using fantasy points?
Luckily for our subscribers, we can answer all of these questions and more. But in order to do so, we first had to quantify strength of schedule. This is typically done by calculating a defense’s FPG allowed average, and then looking at the average for all players over a full season. This will also be our approach; however, we’ll be taking things one step further — we’re going to use a control for the opposing offense by measuring FPG over an opponent’s average.
For instance, last season, opposing tight ends averaged +5.0 fantasy points per game over their season-long average when facing the Chargers, which ranked worst in the league. (The Chargers were the most favorable fantasy matchup for opposing tight ends — worth, on average, an additional 5.0 fantasy points per game.) On the opposite end of the spectrum, tight ends fell short of their season-long average by 5.9 fantasy points when facing the Patriots, which ranked best in the league. (The Patriots were the toughest fantasy matchup for opposing tight ends.) Calculating these numbers for all teams and then applying the full-season average for all players quantifies in real terms which players had the easiest and most difficult schedules for fantasy last year. We can also use these numbers to project out strength of schedule for each team and each position in 2022.
Ah then, you might ask, do defenses get the benefit of being “tough” matchups because bad TE play against them is dragging the numbers down? Not for this study. The strength of schedule average used in this study controls for quality of opponent by eliminating a team’s own TE performance against each specific defense. So this SOS study filters out the notion that the TE being studied was responsible for his own schedule difficulty.
While this methodology isn’t perfect — of course roster turnover and coaching changes will complicate things — strength of schedule doesn’t not matter. This data is still far more actionable than it is not. In fantasy football — like in poker — there may only be small edges to be gained, but those small edges can be compounded to yield a massive advantage. And they must be taken advantage of … and are, by the most dominant players. That’s the case with strength of schedule. It’s another small edge to be realized, and at the polar extremes, it might matter a lot more than you’d expect.
Here’s an example: last season Dalton Schultz (ADP: TE7) had the 5th toughest schedule among all fantasy tight ends. His average matchup was worth -0.66 [team tight end] FPG. Because he was responsible for 80% of the fantasy points generated by Dallas’ tight ends last year (in games active), we can say that — adjusted for strength of schedule, or if he had a perfectly average strength of schedule last year — he would have scored an additional +0.53 FPG. Looking forward, Schultz’s schedule is much improved (most-improved at the position), very soft (4th-softest at the position), and worth a boost of about +1.38 FPG in real terms (adjusting for usage). Essentially, if he had this schedule last year, he would have finished only 0.3 FPG behind the TE3 (Rob Gronkowski), instead of 2.0 FPG behind.
Clearly, strength of schedule – something totally outside of a player’s control and entirely due to luck – can have a big impact for fantasy.
Best Overall Schedule (2021)
1. Albert Okwuegbunam, Average Matchup: +1.95
2. Brevin Jordan (+1.67)
3. Noah Fant (+1.44)
4. George Kittle (+1.12)
5. Adam Trautman (+1.08)
Worst Overall Schedule (2021)
1. Robert Tonyan (-1.39)
2. Dawson Knox (-0.95)
3. David Njoku (-0.71)
4. Austin Hooper (-0.67)
5. Dalton Schultz (-0.66)
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Best Overall Schedule (Weeks 1-17)
1. Jacksonville TEs (+1.53)
2. Austin Hooper (+1.17)
3. NY Giants TEs (+1.07)
4. Dalton Schultz (+1.06)
5. Denver TEs (+0.88)
Worst Overall Schedule (Weeks 1-17)
1. Mark Andrews (-1.31)
2. NY Jets TEs (-1.28)
3. Hayden Hurst (-1.04)
4. Tyler Higbee (-0.76)
5. Robert Tonyan (-0.68)
Off to a Hot Start (First Five Weeks)
1. Jacksonville TEs (+3.58)
2. Denver TEs (+2.14)
3. Travis Kelce (+1.46)
4. Hunter Henry (+1.26)
5. Logan Thomas (+0.96)
Slow Starters (First Five Weeks)
1. Robert Tonyan (-2.10)
t2. Tyler Higbee (-1.86)
t2. Carolina TEs (-1.86)
4. Darren Waller (-1.66)
5. Noah Fant (-1.44)
Best Playoff Schedule (Weeks 15-17)
t1. Dalton Schultz (+2.90)
t1. Austin Hooper (+2.90)
3. Indianapolis TEs (+2.15)
4. Irv Smith Jr. (+1.80)
5. George Kittle (+1.57)
Worst Playoff Schedule (Weeks 15-17)
1. Zach Ertz (-3.57)
2. Darren Waller (-2.83)
3. Hayden Hurst (-1.83)
4. Dallas Goedert (-1.57)
5. Denver TEs (-1.47)
Schedule Change (In Real Points)
Most Improved Schedule
1. Dalton Schultz (+1.38)
2. Dawson Knox (+0.92)
3. Dan Arnold (+0.70)
4. Austin Hooper (+0.69)
5. Evan Engram (+0.53)
Least Improved Schedule
1. Tyler Conklin (-1.70)
2. Mark Andrews (-1.49)
3. C.J. Uzomah (-1.36)
t4. Noah Fant (-1.28)
t4. Tyler Higbee (-1.28)
6. George Kittle (-1.15)
1) For full transparency, strength of schedule is simply less important for tight ends than for any of the other positions we’ve looked at. This is also true from a weekly- (DFS-) perspective as well; matchups only really matter for TEs at the polar extremes.
2) No tight end will benefit more from an improved schedule this year than Dalton Schultz. (Explained in more detail in the introduction.)
3) Pat Freiermuth has a brutal schedule to open the season, worth in real terms -1.66 FPG off of his per-game average through the first five weeks. From that point on he has the league’s 3rd-softest strength of schedule (+1.43). So, maybe, you’re better off fading Freiermuth in drafts and then trying to acquire him cheaply around the Week 6 mark.
4) Mark Andrews has long been one of my favorite players, and is one of my most-rostered players in dynasty leagues. Over the past three seasons he’s finished 5th (13.9), 4th (12.2), and then last year 1st in FPG (17.5). That represented a 43% jump in FPG year-over-year. So, now the question is: what was the catalyst behind this leap?
Andrews was just as efficient as he’s always been (2.18 YPRR in 2021 vs. career 2.25 YPRR), and his role didn’t really change. This was only Andrews’ 3rd-best season by targets per route run, and there wasn’t a significant increase in route percentage (78% to 84%). The main catalyst behind the increase was a jump in routes run per game: 23.3 to 38.9, a 67% increase. And that I’m confident is not sustainable. Which means his 17.5 FPG probably isn’t either.
Over the last three seasons Baltimore has finished 1st (+249), 1st (+165), and 19th (-5) in point differential. Add to that the Ravens’ RB1, RB2, and RB3 all suffering season-ending injuries in training camp, and Baltimore clearly had no other choice but to lean atypically pass-heavy (57%, up from 45%). And the results weren’t great, with Baltimore finishing below 0.500 for the first time since 2015.
So, as much as it pains me to say it, I do envision a natural regression to the mean for Andrews, as the team shifts back to their run-heavy ways. And, it’s at least curious that Andrews wasn’t anywhere near as productive with Lamar Jackson under center – he averaged 22.2 FPG in games Tyler Huntley threw more than 15 passes, but only 15.9 FPG the rest of the time. Adding to all of this, he has the 2nd-worst change in schedule this year, worth in real terms 1.49 FPG off of his 2020 average. You can argue that the departure of Marquise Brown helps make up some ground, and I do think he’s deserving of TE2 status (ADP: TE2), but I’ll have Travis Kelce a tier ahead of him in my own rankings.
5) In many ways 2021 Dawson Knox reminded me a lot of 2020 Robert Tonyan. They were both overly touchdown-reliant, with 33-37% of their fantasy points coming from touchdowns. They were both insanely volatile on a week-to-week basis – if we include the postseason, Knox averaged 17.9 FPG in his top-50% of games and just 5.1 FPG in his bottom-50% of games. And they were both (perhaps dangerously) hyper-efficient, each posting top-25 seasons all-time by fantasy points per target.
We can take this one of two different ways: 1) Knox is an obvious regression candidate, like Tonyan surely was. Or… 2) But Knox was so good, that there’s a really good chance he at least offsets that looming regression with a major increase in volume.
Ultimately, I’m a little undecided. Knox’s upside as an ascending talent and freak athlete is extremely enticing in this potent Josh Allen-powered offense. His volatility makes him perfectly suited for best ball leagues, and he’s not too expensive, ranking 9th in ADP after finishing 10th in FPG last year. And, well, if you factor in his improved schedule, worth +0.92 FPG (2nd-most), that would have bumped him to 8th. So, maybe he’s actually a little underpriced.
6) It’s impressive enough that Albert Okwuegbunam managed to carve out a role while competing against Round 1 TE Noah Fant, but he also ranked 6th among all TEs in YPRR (1.94). Less impressively, he averaged 5.4 FPG on a 36% route share. But what that means is… If Okwuegbunam gets the same role Fant – now in Seattle – had last year (77% route share) and is equally as efficient as he was last year, we should expect 11.6 FPG – good for what would have been a TE8 finish. So, immediately he looks like a value at ADP TE16. But add to that the addition of Russell Wilson, and then also the 2nd-most-favorable schedule of any TE (+0.86), and he now looks like a screaming value. (I do really like Greg Dulcich, but, in general, Round 3 TEs tend not to do much in their rookie seasons.)
7) The analysis and projection on George Kittle is a tricky one for me. I wholeheartedly believe that (when healthy) he’s one of the best and most valuable players in all of football. He’s not a “bell cow TE” – or, rather, a WR masquerading as a TE – but that never stopped Rob Gronkowski, nor Kittle himself, who has finished top-3 in FPG for four consecutive seasons now. But then again, his FPG average has declined in all four seasons: 16.0 to 15.9 to 15.6 to 14.3. And, last season, a whopping 37% of his fantasy points came in just two of his games, while he also failed to eclipse 8.0 fantasy points 43% of the time.
Top TE Each Season by YPRR— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) May 18, 2022
2012: Rob Gronkowski
2013: Rob Gronkowski
2014: Rob Gronkowski
2015: Jordan Reed
2016: Rob Gronkowski
2017: Rob Gronkowski
2018: George Kittle
2019: George Kittle
2020: George Kittle
2021: George Kittle
Again, he’s one of the best and most-efficient TEs in the league, but he is at an inherent disadvantage relative to the other top-tier TEs due to his usage. For instance, Kittle has led all TEs in YPRR in each of the last four seasons, but (over this span) he averages 33% fewer routes run per game than Travis Kelce. It’s a testament to him that he’s only 15% behind Kelce by FPG, but this is a massive handicap.
And here’s another alarming stat: Deebo Samuel has sat out or played under 35% of the team’s snaps in 6 of Kittle’s 22 games over the past two seasons. Without Samuel, Kittle averages 20.3 FPG. With Samuel, that drops to just 12.6. So, on one hand, if Samuel is traded or holds out for the entire season, perhaps Kittle can be a true league-winner. But if he’s bluffing, Kittle is probably a little over-valued (ADP: Round 4) even if we neglect the immense injury risk he carries. Oh, and of course, the fact that he has the league’s 6th least-improved strength of schedule (-1.15).
8) Early into the 2021 season, I falsely predicted that Tyler Higbee would be a fantasy league-winner. Without Gerald Everett to steal snaps and targets, Higbee was thrust into a true “bell cow” TE workload – the same role that saw him average 104.4 YPG over the final five games of the 2019 season. He had a golden opportunity – he led all TEs in route percentage (86%) while playing in a top-3 passing offense – but he failed to capitalize, finishing just 13th in FPG (9.8).
I suppose that usage isn’t likely to change in 2022 – unless Jacob Harris (recovering from an ACL injury) is exactly as good as I had hoped. But, still, it’s hard to get too excited about Higbee, who is also not yet fully recovered from a knee injury of his own. And, to make matters worse, he has the 4th-toughest strength of schedule (-0.76) and the 4th-least improved schedule (-1.28) this season. In other words, if he had this schedule in 2020, he would have fallen from TE13 to TE17 by FPG.
All of this being said, he’s not a terrible pick in best ball leagues at his current ADP (TE20).
9) After finishing 5th in FPG in 2020 (11.0), Logan Thomas was one of my favorite and most-drafted players heading into the 2021 season. Through the first three weeks of the season, everything seemed to go about as well as I had hoped – 100% snap share, 93% route share, 2nd on team in targets, 11.6 FPG (~TE8) – but then his season was derailed by multiple injuries. Washington has since declined to add any meaningful competition at the position, but there’s no guarantee Thomas will be able to return by Week 1 (or play as effectively) following his Week 13 ACL tear. He ranks top-10 in schedule favorability (+0.21) and in schedule change (+0.20), and though he is cheap (ADP: TE19), I have a hard time betting on a 31-year-old TE coming off of this sort of injury.
10) Austin Hooper finished 3rd in FPG in 2019, and then Cleveland immediately made him the highest-paid TE in the NFL. He immediately fell to 22nd in FPG and then, last year, 30th before getting released and then signed by the Titans. I’ve been sleeping heavily on Hooper this season, but I suppose he could be a value play (ADP: TE26) on volume alone. Afterall, Ryan Tannehill doesn’t really have anyone else to throw to. And, he does have the 4th-most-improved schedule this season (+0.69)… Still, I doubt I wind up with any exposure.
11) Ricky Seals-Jones is currently the TE1 of the New York Giants and is priced like an afterthought in best ball leagues (ADP: TE43). He has the 7th-most-improved schedule of any TE (+0.48), and the single-most favorable schedule overall (+0.86). And although he’s never done much for fantasy, he’s at least of the archetype we typically desire when it comes to fantasy TEs – prior to a Week 9 hip injury, he earned a 90% route share filling in for Logan Thomas (five games). For perspective, Tyler Higbee led all TEs in route share last year with 86%. RSJ is undoubtedly one of my favorite last-round targets in best ball leagues (as my TE3), though I doubt I’ll have any exposure in redraft leagues.