Fantasy Football History: Why you shouldn't expect another Sam LaPorta season from Brock Bowers, 2024 class of tight ends

The NFL Draft is just a few weeks fresh in our minds, and with that, I thought it was a good time to dig into Pro Football Reference and see just how well certain positions have performed as rookies in the fantasy era. The series starts with tight ends, and will continue with the other main positions in upcoming weeks.

Sam LaPorta broke the rookie tight end rules last season. We were all witnesses. He bagged 86 catches, 889 yards, 10 touchdowns, and even a pair of two-point conversions. It earned him the TE1 tag and second-team All-Pro honors.

Sam LaPorta headshot
Sam LaPorta
TE - DET - #87
2023 - 2024 season

It was the best TE rookie season of all time, and easily the best tight end debut of the fantasy era. And it's folly to chase that going forward. Unicorn seasons are seldom going to repeat.

I decided to research how early tight end picks have done in the Fantasy Era, loosely defining that era as the year 2000 to today. Obviously, the game is constantly evolving, and I would understand if someone preferred a shorter sample of data.

Let's see what the draft trends show for rookies at this tricky position.

— Five tight ends were drafted with top-10 picks over this period. Kyle Pitts had a quirky rookie year, with 1,026 yards but just one touchdown. He graded as the TE10 in standard; he's been the TE33 and TE13 since. No one will miss Arthur Smith in Atlanta.

— Kellen Winslow II was the sixth pick in 2004 and got hurt. He played in just two games.

Vernon Davis was all sorts of decorated as the No. 6 pick out of Maryland in 2006. He missed six games as a rookie and didn't do much in the time he was healthy (20-265-3). Davis eventually became a good player, charting four times at TE8 or better (and he was the No. 1 TE in 2009). He also inspired a classic Mike Singletary rant.

T.J. Hockenson (eighth pick, 2019) is part of the Iowa tight end legacy. His first year was underwhelming: 32-367-2. He missed four games.

Eric Ebron (tenth pick, 2014) never met a pass he didn't want to drop. He gave the Lions 13 mediocre games in his first year (25-248-1).

It's no wonder the fantasy ethos became "ignore rookie tight ends" around this period.

There are a few occasional hits if we look at other first-round tight ends (there were 27 picks in all). Evan Engram's 2017 debut grades out best among the first-round rookies in our target area: a 64-722-6 haul over 15 games. He edges past Pitts in standard scoring; Pitts is slightly ahead on PPR. Engram was TE5 that year; he's been TE6 in his last two seasons, reinventing himself with the Jaguars.

Touchdown deodorant (six scores each) coaxed a TE11 season from Heath Miller and a TE17 season from O.J. Howard. Jeremy Shockey and Dalton Kincaid both made it past 70 receptions. Noah Fant and Dustin Keller were the only other first-round tight ends who made it past 500 yards receiving.

The second-round survey opens us up to some exciting seasons. LaPorta, of course, was the 34th pick in the 2023 draft. Rob Gronkowski had 10 touchdowns as a rookie; Pat Freiermuth had seven. John Carlson checked in with a solid 50-627-5 season.

The later rounds include plenty of players who went on to become stars, though most of their debut seasons were tame. Aaron Hernandez had six touchdowns as a rookie. Mark Andrews, Chris Cooley, Jimmy Graham, George Kittle and Jordan Reed showed future potential.

I suppose we also have to mention Captain Asterisk, Marques Colston. The Saints took him in the seventh round of the 2006 draft, the 252nd pick overall. His 70-1,038-8 season was a monster, and it was especially fun in Yahoo formats where he was tight end eligible. If you rostered Colston as a wideout, you enjoyed the WR14 season. If you could slide Colston to tight end, you had the top-scoring player at the position. Not bad for someone who was largely undrafted in fantasy leagues.

The 2024 rookie class at tight end is ready to underwhelm us.

Brock Bowers comes into the league with glittering clippings from Georgia, but he landed on a Vegas team that has little at quarterback, a touchdown-gobbling wideout in-house (Davante Adams), and a solid tight end already rostered (Michael Mayer). Bowers is a modest TE16 in early Yahoo ADP, which seems fair to me. The talent is great, but the fit is not.

The other rookie tight ends look like slow-developing prospects. Perhaps Ben Sinnott (Pick 53) will eventually gain some traction in Washington. Ja'Tavion Sanders (Pick 101) heads to a Carolina roster desperate for pass-catchers.

I was prepared to pick Bowers proactively if he landed almost anywhere but Las Vegas. Now, he's essentially not on my board. Rookie life is generally difficult on first-year tight ends — it's a complicated position that often requires a gradual onboarding — and the Raiders have receiving options that take precedence. And no one views Gardner Minshew or Aidan O'Connell as a kingmaker.

"Fade everything" is not a satisfying conclusion, I understand. But as we continue this rookie survey series, we'll find more optimism at some other positions.