How do you start creating your NFL lineups on DraftKings? I’ve discussed this with a number of pros and there are all sorts of different answers. Some begin with their favorite running backs and build around those. Others take “the sure thing” at quarterback and then construct a lineup from there. In tournaments, a lot of guys like to create their lineups around their favorite stack.

My lineup philosophy is essentially “Let me figure out where I might have an edge over the field and try to exploit that to the best of my ability.” You might be really good at identifying running back production, in which case it might make sense for you to start there and work outward.

For me, the “best” strategy necessarily must consider how others are crafting their lineups, and I think there’s probably an inefficiency in the way many users handle the flex position on DraftKings. My goal with every lineup is to “win” at the flex position and (hopefully) stay even everywhere else.

 

The Data on the Flex Position

The “best” player or position to stick into the flex spot is a fluid situation; it depends on all sorts of factors, including the lineup you place around it, your risk tolerance, and of course the league you plan to enter.

I’ll do some more analysis on league-based flex strategy at a later date, but right now I want to focus on tournaments. In large-field leagues, your goal is to create a lineup with as much upside as possible. A lot of people create $/point values when selecting their players on DraftKings, which is certainly useful in many formats, but in tournaments, it’s all about upside. You want players who don’t have a low cap on the number of points they can score in a given week.

With DraftKings’ full PPR scoring, that upside has historically come from pass-catchers. Here’s the probability of winning a tournament based on the position that’s used in the flex.

RB: 0.087%

WR: 0.93%

TE: 0.109%

Historically, wide receivers and tight ends have been better flex plays than running backs. That makes sense when you consider that, due to their respective workloads, pass-catchers are naturally more volatile (a good thing in tournaments) than running backs. Tight ends in particular are usually high-variance because they see the lightest workloads and are usually pretty dependent on touchdowns for fantasy production.

The tight end numbers are particularly interesting to me, for two reasons. First, users have won GPPs 25 percent more often when they place a tight end in the flex as opposed to a running back. Second, a two-tight-end lineup isn’t particularly common, which gives it added value in a tournament. You’ll run into other lineups with Jimmy Graham, but probably not too many with Graham and Rob Gronkowski.

One thing we need to figure out is which types of tight ends have the most flex value. The data suggests “the expensive ones.”

If we compare the amount spent on flex positions for winners versus all lineups, this is what we see…

RB: -$344

WR: -$388

TE: +1,181

Those who have won GPPs with running backs and wide receivers in the flex have typically spent less on those positions (in the flex) and more elsewhere (perhaps on their tight end). Meanwhile, those who have gone the two-tight-end route have found much more success by paying up for two elite players at the position.

This likely reflects the Graham/Gronkowski effect. The value of such a strategy is then fluid since it’s so dependent on certain players for effectiveness, but I still think it’s interesting and actionable. That’s especially true since the tight end position is changing rapidly; we now have players like Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron who are utilized almost exclusively as pass-catchers and ready to join the elite tight end ranks.

 

Scarcity and “Upside Per Point”

This all comes down to scarcity; the top tight ends are outliers at their position in a way that the elite players at other spots are not. There’s a huge difference in the way tight ends are used across the league, and also a massive gap in opportunities. The NFL might not agree, but Graham is a wide receiver. Comparing him to Heath Miller is like comparing Jamaal Charles to me as an explosive athlete out of the backfield.

The other issue here is cost. Looking at the current salaries at the tight end position, we see that Graham would be priced as just the ninth most expensive receiver, Gronkowski as the 11th, Thomas as 20th, and Cameron as the 32nd. If you compare the cost per point you can expect to score for players of all positions, you’ll often see that tight ends can offer some value.

So the elite tight ends have two things going for them that might make them awesome flex options in big tournaments. First, they see more opportunities than other players at their position, making them scarce resources. Second, their play is still pretty volatile from week to week, which is a positive in tournaments because it creates upside.

In that way, what we’re really looking at with elite tight ends is a high ceiling relative to their cost—or “upside per point.” Compared to their cost, players like Graham and Gronkowski offer more upside than the majority of running backs, and they do it at a cheaper price. It’s not a popular strategy, but a Graham/Gronk combination could be deadly in your daily fantasy tournament lineups this season.