The annals of fantasy football are littered with hundreds of half-cocked theories about how to consistently identify players poised for a breakout season. Almost all of these theories are built on the back of anecdotal anomalies, and every single one has little predictive value at best.
Among the newest of these theories is the idea that tight ends breakout in their sophomore season, and like a lot of other breakout theories this one is based on some interesting anecdotal evidence.
Antonio Gates exploded onto the scene with an 81-964-13 line in his second season, Rob Gronkowski scored 241 standard fantasy points his second run around the league, and Jimmy Graham almost tripled his fantasy output per game from his rookie to sophomore season.
This anecdotal evidence is also anecdotally explained. Tight end is one of the most difficult positions to learn, so players need at least one season to become effective NFL players. Once they have the nuances of the position down, their natural talent allows them to earn more playing time and be more effective on the football field.
These are all nice stories, but the important question is, do the numbers back up the stories? Do sophomore tight ends see a bump in usage and production that is larger than the second-year jump at other positions?
The first step to answering the question is examining the production jump from the top tight ends, which will be defined as tight ends drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. The rationale for using top draft picks is these players are usually expected to contribute early in their careers and should offer good numbers in both their rookie and sophomore seasons.
From 2000-2012, 63 tight ends were drafted in the first three rounds, and 57 of those players recorded statistics in both of their first two seasons. Those 57 combined to average 2.48 targets and 2.4 fantasy points per game their rookie seasons. Only 14 rookies scored more than 50 fantasy points, only four scored more than 75, and only two scored more than 100. Not exciting numbers.
The same group of tight ends showed much better their sophomore year, though, seeing 3.85 targets and 4.19 fantasy points a game on average. Second-year tight ends were also more effective with their targets, improving on average from .97 fantasy points to 1.09 fantasy points per target.
Impressively, only 13 of the 57 saw a decrease in their fantasy points per game totals from their rookie to sophomore years. More impressively, 32 scored more than 50 fantasy points their sophomore year, 21 scored more than 75, seven scored more than 100, and Gronkowski scored 241 his second season.
The numbers are fairly clear. Tight ends are given more opportunities in their second season in the NFL, and they are more efficient with those opportunities.
That in itself is not conclusive, though. It would be surprising if top level picks did not improve from their first to their second seasons, so the real question should be is this change in production more pronounced for tight ends than other positions?
Of all the other positions, wide receiver is the most logical to compare with tight ends. From 2005-2012, 66 wide receivers were drafted in the first three rounds, and 63 of those recorded stats in each of their first two seasons. Those 63 receivers saw an average increase of 1.41 fantasy points per game and .92 targets per game from their rookie to sophomore seasons.
A nice jump, but both changes are smaller than the change for tight ends. This shows tight ends do see a larger increase in effectiveness on average than other fantasy positions.
It is important to place this information in context, though. The average increase in fantasy points a game for second-year tight ends was 1.78 points, which would only translate to 28 extra fantasy points over a full season. That level of points gained is hardly worthy of the term “breakout.”
Moreover, only six of the 57 tight ends saw an increase of more than five fantasy points a game, which works out to roughly 10% of the eligible tight ends. Perhaps one of this year’s second-year tight ends will find that level of success, but it is extremely unlikely.
What the numbers do show is second-year tight ends should be expected to show marginal improvement both in opportunity and effectiveness. So, what could this marginal improvement look like for the tight ends selected in the first three rounds in 2013?
Tyler Eifert – Cincinnati Bengals
The story on Eifert’s rookie season has to begin with his usage. He saw only 10% of the Bengals’ total targets and was targeted eight fewer times than Jermaine Gresham despite playing one more game. Many analysts see this as a crime against talent, but the reality is Eifert was not any better than Gresham as a pass catcher last season. Gresham had a better catch rate, was more efficient in the red zone, and had a yard per target comparable with Eifert.
Eifert will have to improve if he wants a larger share of the Bengals’ pass game, and even though that improvement is likely, the Bengals’ changing offensive philosophy could mean a modest bump in usage still will not be enough to propel Eifert into the usable fantasy range. He has some breakout appeal, but his apparent lack of opportunity weighs him down.
Zach Ertz – Philadelphia Eagles
Of all second-year tight ends, Ertz is one of the favorites to breakout. He was highly effective with his limited touches last season, scoring 1.27 fantasy points per target, and is in line for an expanded role following the departure of DeSean Jackson. He is also in an offense that figures to score a lot of points this season.
90 targets are well within reach and could easily see Ertz into the lower reaches of the TE1 tier. He represents great value in the tenth round.
Gavin Escobar – Dallas Cowboys
Escobar is flying under the radar as a breakout candidate, but he may be the best value pick of the entire second-year lot.
Escobar’s snaps were limited his rookie season by blocking concerns, but he showed glimpses of how effective he could be as a receiver. He caught 60% of his targets, averaged 1.69 fantasy points per target, and made a couple highlight-worthy plays, most notably a head-over-heels jump into the end zone the final week of the season.
Playmaking ability will be a coveted asset in Dallas this season with Jason Witten squarely on the downside of his career and an uninspiring receiving corps outside of Dez Bryant, and Escobar has the skill set to bring that ability to the table. Opportunity will be the issue, but if he gets the targets, he will make plays. Escobar is someone to keep an eye on in redraft formats and a nice stash in Dynasty leagues.
Vance McDonald – San Francisco 49ers
McDonald is the only player on this list that has absolutely zero chance to breakout, which likely means he will be the one that does.
The issues surround McDonald are significant and many. He is at best the sixth passing game option for a team that figures to rank in the bottom five of pass attempts, and, frankly, he may not be very good at catching the football. He dropped his way to a 42% catch rate his rookie season, and has reportedly dropped several passes in every practice this offseason. It is doubtful McDonald would have a big passing-game role even if Vernon Davis gets hurt. He has no redraft value.
Travis Kelce – Kansas City Chiefs
Kelce is one of the more interesting second-year tight ends simply because he can hardly be considered one. Kelce missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury and missed the entire Chiefs’ offseason program recovering from microfracture surgery. If there is any benefit to the reps players get their rookie year and their first full NFL offseason, Kelce has not received it, and it is reasonable to question whether he should be view as more of a rookie in terms of development.
If that is the case, then it is difficult to predict a breakout for Kelce. Rookie tight ends almost never make a difference in fantasy, and Kelce is trying to comeback from a notoriously burst-sapping microfracture surgery. Then again, one of the main reasons rookie tight ends struggle is a lack of opportunity, which likely will not be a problem for Kelce. The Chiefs are desperate for weapons in the passing game, and early reports suggest Kelce will be relied on to help bolster the attack.
Kelce truly is an enigma. The prospect of opportunities with check-down Alex Smith makes him intriguing, but his lack of experience and injury history scream stay away. He is worth a flier, but that is about it.
Jordan Reed – Washington Redskins
Averaging 7.7 fantasy points a game despite playing in an offense that was in disarray, Reed was on pace to post one of the best rookie tight end seasons in recent memory before concussions ended his season early. With that success, it would be difficult to call anything short of a Jimmy Graham-like season a breakout.
Marginal improvement, however, should be enough to propel Reed into the upper echelons of the tight end position. An extra point a game puts him squarely in the top five. An extra two points a game has him in Julius Thomas’ range. Both those outcomes are well within the scope of Reed’s possibilities.
The fly in the ointment, though, is Reed’s injury history. He has suffered four concussions in the last four seasons, and missed the final seven games last season after sustaining a concussion. Concussions are a cumulative injury, meaning the likelihood of sustaining a concussion increases every time a player is concussed. That obviously makes Reed’s injury history even more concerning.
The injury history would be easy to swallow if Reed was going late in drafts, but his current seventh-round ADP is a steep price to pay for a player unlikely to make it through the entire season. Unless his ADP falls, Reed may be a player to pass on this draft season.