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The Viability of TE Streaming

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The Viability of TE Streaming
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Denny Carter explores tight end evolution and how it makes streaming TEs like Rob Housler a viable weekly …

It’s not just tight ends’ body types, height, weight, speed – their sheer athleticism – that has so radically changed in the position’s evolution.

It’s everything.

From usage in the slot to expanded route trees to the impact of NFL rule changes that have allowed teams to exploit the middle of the field with gusto, both sides of fantasy football’s most basic equation – talent and opportunity -- have changed for tight ends.

It’s that change that has created a veritable laundry list of useable weekly tight end options in fantasy leagues of almost every kind. More tight ends are seeing more targets, catching more passes, and scoring more consistent fantasy points weekly and – as you may have deduced – seasonally.

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The strategy begins on draft day, when an owner committed to streaming tight ends would do well to spend two late-round picks on the position. This isn’t essential, however, as you’ll find your fair share of streamable plays – guys squaring off against defenses that have struggled mightily against tight ends – on the waiver wire.

I’ve been a proponent of streaming tight ends, like we do with defenses, for much of this offseason. 2011 may have been a record-setting year for tight ends, with Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham scoring the most and second-most fantasy points among tight ends in the long and storied history of fantasy football, but the 2012 season showed that beyond the elites lie a cavalcade of tight ends who proved worthy of spot starts.

Forty-seven tight ends posted top-12 (TE1) numbers in at least one week last season, while 25 tight ends scored in the top-12 four or more times.

I thought it might be helpful to use a slightly wider lens in examining how NFL tight ends were once used, and how they’re deployed today.

2002

Targets: 2,684
Receptions: 1,698
25+ Yard Catches: 95
Touchdowns: 137

2007

Targets: 3,340
Receptions: 2,147
25+ Yard Catches: 129
Touchdowns: 187

2012

Targets: 3,827
Receptions: 2,449
25+ Yard Catches: 186
Touchdowns: 202

It’s all a bit jarring. Distilled, here’s the main takeaway from the above numbers: tight ends of a decade ago (this includes all tight ends) averaged 28.5 targets per season. This number in 2012 spiked to 35.5 targets per season.

That sort of increase, spread across all 108 NFL tight ends, could – and should – change the way we think about the position in fantasy football.

We’ve always expected, for good reason, that the game’s top tight ends will be force-fed the football as an integral part of an offense. Their targets and receptions have always been far more reliable than their lesser-used counterparts, just as top-notch wide receivers are top notch precisely because the pigskin flies their way more often. Sprinkle in elite talent, and you have a recipe for fantasy glory.

A look at targets among tight ends who ranked 12-24 in pass targets reveals a significant opportunity rise even among those who’d never be considered elite, in fantasy or otherwise. The definition of volume has changed when it comes to tight end targets.

2009: 61.4 average targets
2010: 65.3 average targets
2011: 75.8 average targets
2012: 77.4 average targets


Statistics courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com.

Remember, these average seasonal targets are among many of the tight ends that you could draft in the waning rounds and use selectively throughout the season – usually when they play tight end-friendly defenses.

Targeting Defenses

It should make perfect sense that while tight ends targets, receptions, and touchdowns have spiked, so too have defenses allowing juicy weekly outputs to tight ends. It’s easier than ever to spot a good match-up, even a few weeks in advance.

This is anything but revolutionary. Savvy fantasy footballers have done this for years with fantasy defenses: identifying favorable match-ups, making the necessary roster moves, and reaping the benefits against owners fixated on a single defense, no matter their match-up.

Below is a look at the 10 NFL defenses that gave up the most fantasy production to tight ends in 2012 standard leagues.

Average fantasy points allowed to tight ends per week

Washington Redskins: 9.6
Denver Broncos: 9.4
Tennessee Titans: 9.4
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 8.3
New England Patriots: 8.2
Houston Texans: 8.1
Oakland Raiders: 7.9
Carolina Panthers: 7.6
New Orleans Saints: 7.4
Detroit Lions: 7.2

Here are the 10 most tight end-friendly defenses of 2008.

Average fantasy points allowed to tight ends per week

San Diego Chargers: 11.1
New York Jets: 9.0
Detroit Lions: 8.9
Denver Broncos: 7.7
Atlanta Falcons: 7.7
Kansas City Chiefs: 7.4
Jacksonville Jaguars: 7.4
Philadelphia Eagles: 6.9
Houston Texans: 6.7
Cincinnati Bengals: 6.7

And finally, the 10 most exploitable defenses from 2003.

Average fantasy points allowed to tight ends per week

San Diego Chargers: 7.3
Detroit Lions: 7.2
Oakland Raiders: 7.1
Cleveland Browns: 6.3
Jacksonville Jaguars: 5.7
Chicago Bears: 5.7
Pittsburgh Steelers: 5.6
Denver Broncos: 5.6
Atlanta Falcons: 5.5
Washington Redskins: 5.5


For a little perspective on this shift in fantasy points allowed, consider this: the Eagles and Chargers, two of the stingiest defenses against tight ends in 2012, allowed 5.5 points per game. That would’ve made those teams among the tight end-friendliest just nine seasons ago.

The glut of exploitable defenses makes streaming tight ends viable. Identifying favorable match-ups – sometimes weeks in advance – is how we work the defensive streaming system. Why not do the same with tight ends, assuming we don’t have the luxury of rolling out an elite option week in and week out?

Even top-10 fantasy tight ends were best used as streamers in 2012. Dennis Pitta, fantasy’s seventh best tight end, posted three points or less in six contests. Kyle Rudolph, the ninth highest scoring tight end, had seven abysmal games of two points or less. Antonio Gates, the fourth tight end off 2012 draft boards, had six games of two fantasy points or less.

Sticking with these guys made little to no sense as waiver wire options faced exploitable defenses. Perhaps owners find comfort in plugging and playing the guys they drafted, no matter their changing prospects and tough matchups.

That may be comfortable, but it’s far from optimal.

Changing Prototypes, Rules

Even the casual football watcher or fantasy owner can eyeball the difference between today’s beastly tight ends and those of yesteryear.

Gil Brandt, NFL analyst and former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, boiled down the change in tight ends to a few pertinent and somewhat startling facts. Brandt said in February that the heaviest tight end in the 1983 NFL draft weighed 237 pounds. The average weight of a tight end at the 2013 NFL combine weighed in at 252 pounds.

Tony Hunter, the league’s biggest tight end in 1983, stood 6-foot-4 – a giant among men at the time. Brandt pointed out that 12 of 19 tight ends at the 2013 combine were 6-foot-4 or taller.

The Hulk-like growth of NFL tight ends has coincided with rule changes that have emboldened pass catchers of every ilk – especially the gargantuan variety – to run routes over the middle of the field and pick up chunks of yardage, and, simultaneously, fantasy production.

Rules that limit contact near the line of scrimmage and penalizing head-hunting hits so common in over-the-middle pass routes don’t just benefit Graham and Gronkowski, but Greg Olsen (ADP 10.06) Martellus Bennett (ADP 12.09), Jordan Cameron (ADP 13.09), and Rob Housler (ADP 14.04).

"No longer is the intimidation factor relevant in the middle of the field," Trent Dilfer said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "I've seen routes being called with tight ends and slot receivers that you never even thought about running 10 years ago because you'd get your guys killed. So now you get all this chunk yardage in the middle of the football field with players that don't have to necessarily have top-end speed."

It’s all part of a formula that makes streaming tight ends a reliable strategy in all but the deepest fantasy leagues.

These rule changes and the athleticism of today’s tight ends, along with the marked jump in tight end targets and receptions and the increase in reliably generous defenses have created myriad weekly opportunities to optimize fantasy lineups for every owner, not just those who own the top tight ends.

If you’re keen on investing early- and mid-round picks on running backs and wide receivers, spend a couple late rounders on tight ends and – just as you do with defenses – exploit their match-ups.

Does It Work?

The expansion of useable tight end options is new enough for streaming advocates and doubters to put forth perfectly legitimate arguments for and against the strategy. I take none of it to heart. I’m encouraged by the pervasive skepticism.

The entire system is predicated on sober and often difficult decision making: finding the best tight end match-ups sometimes two or three weeks in advance, trusting in the numbers, and forsaking your allegiance to a single tight end acquired for the low price of late-round pick.

But do the numbers have good news for us? Pro Football Focus writer Pat Thorman explored that part of tight end streaming in impressive depth this offseason, and after crunching numbers showing precisely what tight ends did against certain defenses, Thorman delivered good news to fantasy football’s burgeoning community of streamers.

Fantasy tight ends who finished the season in the 11-20 range averaged just 4.7 fantasy points per game against defenses that were in the top half of the NFL in defending tight ends. Those same players scored 7.4 points against bottom-half defenses.

The results were similar, though not nearly as startling, for tight ends who finished 21-25 in fantasy leagues. Those players averaged 4.1 fantasy points per contest against the top-half defenses, and 5.4 points per game against the 16 tight end friendliest defensive units.

These tight ends – those who finish the season anywhere from a low-end TE1 to a top-end TE3, are your streamers. They are available on your local waiver wire, they’re begging to be used in favorable matchups against defenses that have been gouged by tight ends, and they often present far superior options than the tight end you drafted in August.

The tight end position has seen a dramatic and irreversible shift. NFL coaches have taken note. It’s time for fantasy footballers to do the same.

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