In previous seasons, the "flex" spot in ESPN leagues could only be filled by either a running back or wide receiver. This season, we are expanding the position to also include tight ends. Following the "Year of the Tight End," you might expect that this change would make a significant difference. Before you come to that conclusion, take a look at the following statistics.
A standard ESPN league consists of 10 teams that must each start at least two running backs and two wide receivers. Most owners would consider the first candidate for most teams' flex player to be around the 21st-best running back, 21st-best wide receiver or 11th-best tight end. While that seems logical, it's also important to remember that those numbers are only for weeks that have no bye in the NFL schedule. For the eight weeks of the NFL schedule that have byes, the number of players available during those weeks decreases, on average, by 12.5 percent, so if you take that adjustment into effect, the first player who should be allocated to the "flex" position is really the 24th-best running back, 24th-best wide receiver or 12th-best tight end.
Last season, the 24th-best running back scored 133 points, while the 24th-best wide receiver scored 122 fantasy points. The difference in total fantasy points between these two players is less than one fantasy point per game, so it's safe to project that you'll want at least 130 fantasy points for the season from your "flex" player. With this is mind; is there an advantage to be gained by using a tight end in that slot? The answer is yes.
Last season, with no ability to utilize a tight end in the "flex" position, there really wasn't a need to draft a backup tight end. The scoring differential between the 11th-ranked tight end and the 18th was just 20 total points. Wasting a roster spot for an average one point per game differential over what was available on the waiver wire simply did not make sense, especially when you consider the scoring variability of players on a week-to-week basis was greater than their average difference. This season, the need to draft a backup tight end will be affected by those electing to use a tight end at the flex position, whether it makes sense to do so or not.
In our preliminary 2012 rankings, the panel of ESPN fantasy football analysts ranked Vernon Davis as the fourth-best tight end and projected him as the 61st-ranked player overall. Just before Davis, we ranked Steve Johnson, who came in as the 23rd-best wide receiver. For a hypothetical, consider this scenario: You drafted Jimmy Graham as your starting tight end in the second or third round. Now you find yourself at the end of the sixth round or beginning of the seventh round with the choice of taking Steve Johnson or Vernon Davis. You agree with our projections that have them both scoring between 134 and 138 points for the season. Who should you take? The answer to this question is easy: Vernon Davis. The reasoning is a bit more complicated as there are multiple benefits to taking Davis:
1. You are selecting a player for your "flex" position that is a solid value compared to the other available options.
2. You provide your team with a backup tight end that is capable of being your starter on a week-to-week basis in case of injury to your primary starter.
3. You weaken the starting roster of at least one other team in your league by forcing someone to start a player who is outside the top 10 of the position.
With that being said, Davis, Antonio Gates and Jason Witten are the tight ends that you should be looking to employ this strategy with as they are the only three that we project will produce enough points to warrant being a starter in the "flex" position throughout the year. Of course, if you believe that Aaron Hernandez and/or Jermichael Finley are also likely to score about 135 fantasy points this season, you could also include them in that group.
In the past, many participants of our ESPN leagues would be satisfied with selecting the last available top-10 tight end for their weekly starter. If you were a member of that group, it's necessary that you adapt your strategy this season to account for this dynamic change. If multiple teams start selecting two (or more) tight ends, instead of grabbing the projected 10th-best tight end, you could quickly find yourself with the 16th- or 17th-best option. Last year, that would have been a difference of 24 points for the season, and you'd also find yourself without an option that has significant upside.
There's an advantage to be had for the savvy owner with this new change. Taking a second tight end, either as your planned "flex" or as one of your backups, can provide you with a leg up on your competition. Anytime you have the opportunity to make your team stronger, while also forcing someone else's team to become weaker, it's a path you should take. This season, that means using a tight end as your flex, if you can draft two of the top-6 tight ends. Doing so will both bring you rewards and frustrate your opponents, and that's exactly what a sound draft strategy should accomplish.