After diving in with a look at scoring, drives and plays and red zone production, we’re finally going to shift our focus into the specific positions for fantasy football. Kicking that positional outlook off, we’re just going to dive into the worst position for fantasy purposes, tight ends.
Over the past decade, the tight end position has settled in comfortably around the lower 20-percent mark in terms of targets, receptions yardage and overall receiving output for fantasy purposes. The one area where tight ends to carve out a larger impact than their minimal overall usage suggests is that they out-kick their usage in the touchdown department. Specifically, the position makes their mark in this department with how many short scores the crux of the position relies on, as we highlighted a few weeks back when looking at the players who needed goal-line targets the most.
In our very first post, we talked about how scoring was way down in 2017 and next week we’ll uncover that drop-off stemmed from one of the worst passing-volume seasons over the past decade. The increased use of running backs in the passing game also had a direct impact on tight ends as running backs out-targeted the tight end position a year ago for the first time in a season since 2008. That overall volume loss crushed the tight end position for fantasy purposes as the position collectively had their lowest-scoring season since the 2009 campaign. This was coming on the heels of the position having a dreadful 2016-season as well, especially from the best producers at the position.
Top-12 Scoring Tight End Output Over the Past 10 Years
The best of the position was able to squeeze out a bit more touchdown production than the previous season, but collectively, the best starting-caliber bulk producers at the tight end position turned in their lowest-scoring season since 2008. Both Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski posted more points than what paced the position a year ago but looking at the actual individual performances that made up the best of the position in bulk, uncovers even further that 2017 was one of the worst fantasy seasons we’ve seen in quite some time for pass catchers.
Outside of Kelce and Gronk, Zach Ertz posted the lowest-scoring season for a TE3 in eight years while the next three players after him in fantasy production haven’t had a season with lower output in relation to their respective scoring finish since the 2003 seasons. If you think this looks bad, just wait until we get to the impact 2017 had on wide receivers, but the tight end position offered us very few options that we could count on as week-to-week producers, something that is hardly new.
No position has a worse rollover in terms of week-to-week consistency than the tight end position and it’s not particularly close. This is largely because their opportunity is the smallest of the skill positions and are reliant on touchdown production to carve out top-scoring weeks. Over the past five seasons, less than half of the players that produce a starting caliber-week in season (excluding Week 17) at the tight end position go on to produce three or more in that same year and fewer than a quarter (22.2 percent) post six or more starting weeks in the same season.
Finding the players that continually post those consistent weeks is a moving target. Only Travis Kelce (four straight seasons), Delanie Walker (three) and Jimmy Graham (two) have running streaks of multiple seasons with eight or more games registering as starting caliber weeks. Over that span, just five tight ends have had three or more seasons with eight or more such weeks, with Gronkowski and Greg Olsen joining the previously mentioned trio. And that’s just with the bar set at the baseline. In terms of consistently being able to post true alpha-type weeks to give you a true advantage over your opponent, only Gronkowski has multiple seasons with eight or more weeks with top-6 scoring weekly numbers, doing so in three of the past five seasons. Gronk is the true king, with 78.9 percent (45-of-57) of his games played over that span hitting the TE1 baseline with 56.1 percent of his weeks ranking as a top-6 scorer and 40.4 percent as a top-3 fantasy option in that given week he took the field.
With such few options that continually produce, you may consider it an advantage in grabbing one of the top options. That way you don’t have to deal with the micro-management of unproductive players at an inherently unproductive position. That latter statement is where you run into the true issue of using high draft capital on a tight end, however.
This is why more and more leagues are adopting a “TE Premium” for tight ends in regard to scoring, where tight ends will get more points per catch than the other positions because they just can’t pace the scoring juice from those spots while you only need to roster one in the majority of starting lineups. Over the past five seasons, the average TE1 is only producing 80.8 percent of the top scoring running back in PPR formats and 74.5 percent of the top-scoring wide receiver with a linear decline as we move down the line at the position. In standard leagues, the subsequent drop off isn’t as direct, but the production is much worse in relation to other skill positions once you strip away points per reception.
As for generating a baseline for the position, the average TE12 scores on par with the RB30 and WR37 in standard formats while those marks are the RB25 and WR38 in PPR formats. Even in a down year for the wide receiver position, the top tight end still only produced 70.4 percent of the lead wideout.
This is where those who use value over replacement player (VORP) or a value-based drafting (VBD) mentality can be led into coveting one of those top options at the position. For one, we already just highlighted that finding those guys that rollover that type of production consistently are hard to find while in the context of matching the ceiling production and predictability of weekly scoring at those other positions isn’t something the tight end position is even capable of.
The other area where a value-based approach masks is the supply and demand element of fantasy football. A traditional fantasy football lineup requires only one tight end, but at least two running backs and wide receivers. Adding on injury rates, players busting and with flex spots and/or an additional wide receiver spot, the demand for running backs and wideouts is much greater than the other positions. Even before factoring in that those players score more points, they are inherently more expensive in drafts because the need to obtain those players is higher.
What a value-based approach fails to fully encapsulate is that demand in relation to cost. While your board may be telling you that you should take a tight end versus a wideout or a running back at a specific point because his value over the baseline player of his position is greater than anyone else available, what it doesn’t account for is where the cost of the other positional baselines is. Using Frank Dupont’s oldie but goodie Man Games article, the true baseline for the tight end position for 12-team leagues that are required to start one is the TE18, which carries an average ADP of 149.9 overall in drafts over the past five years. Compared to the other baselines of the positions (RB34 and WR31 or WR49 depending on starting requirements), the running back baseline is set at pick 101.6 while the wide receiver baseline is set at pick 80.5 for leagues that are required to start two wideouts and pick 133.9 for leagues that require three starters. If your baseline player at the position is being selected up to four rounds later than the baseline at another position you’re forfeiting your edge gained by taking on players that fall below those baselines at other spots. I'm willing to entertain Gronk in the back half of the second round in PPR formats when I have a high-touchdown producing running back already banked, but when I miss out on that opportunity, I'm waiting several rounds to draft the position because running backs and wide receivers are just too valuable in traditional league settings.
Shifting gears to some actual player thoughts and analysis, one of the things that is often looked at with more a magnifying glass now in fantasy is player snaps. The tight end position is the most unique position to discuss through that lens. Because tight end is truly a dual-role position, it’s more important to dive further under the hood of snaps played as a true opportunity for each player. We are looking for players who aren’t just playing a lot of snaps but are running passing routes over blocking because that’s where the opportunity intersects with fantasy production. It doesn’t really matter if a player like Tyler Higbee is playing 71 percent of the snaps (which rank 13th at the position) if he’s blocking on 65 percent of them. You can’t run into tangible fantasy volume that way. Last season, tight ends in totality ran a pass route on just 45 percent of their snaps played while the top-12 scorers in terms of points per game ran a pass a route on 54 percent of their snaps.
*Route Data Provided By Pro Football Focus
For those curious, routes run per snap rate carries a modest .6714 R-squared for yearly rollover over the past 10 years for players with over 100 total snaps. Setting the gold standard in terms of snaps spent running routes, overall routes run and targets on those routes was Travis Kelce. He paced the position in routes run per game while ranking sixth in target rate per routes of the listed players above. Kelce tore the league up down the field, posting 19 receptions for 478 yards and four touchdowns on targets 15-yards or further downfield, trumping the 18 receptions for 476 yards and zero touchdowns on such targets he had amassed for his entire career prior to last season. His floor has a bit of instability to it with the unknown performance of Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs having a tough task of matching their 2017 offensive efficiency, but Kelce has also just missed one game – a Week 17 coach’s decision – over the past four years, an availability that is significant factor for owners investing such high draft capital at the position.
Rookie tight ends generally are a slow burn as they fail to garner significant snaps as they become acclimated to the NFL, but Evan Engram was thrust to the forefront of the Giants offense out of necessity. Only Kelce ran more pass routes than Engram in 2017 while he ranked sixth in routes run per snap and ninth in target rate per route. Engram accrued 20.7 percent of the team targets in games that Odell Beckham was inactive and 26.4 percent in games in which both Beckham and Sterling Shepard were inactive as opposed to 18.1 percent when either were on the field and 17.6 percent when Beckham was playing. That latter mark is still impressive for a rookie tight end, so we don’t want to discount Engram’s production in totality solely because he’ll surely not be forced the opportunity he was a year ago with New York getting Beckham and Shepard back while adding Saquon Barkley. Engram is likely overvalued from an overall ADP stance this summer but is one of the few tight ends being drafted at the top of the position that is on an ascending career trajectory.
No tight end with a significant sample was targeted at a higher rate per route than Zach Ertz last season while he ranked fifth of the players above in routes run per game. Pair those two marks up and you have a high-floor player. A tight end who had struggled to find the end zone – scoring 13 times over his first four seasons- he scored eight times in 14 games played. Ertz hasn’t shown the week-winning type of ceiling that Gronk and Kelce have shown, but he belongs in the conversation because his floor has proven to be so high and steady over the past year and a half. Although he has paced the position in points just twice over his past 23 games, Ertz has scored double-digit PPR points 18 times over that span, the most in the league. His opportunity waned a bit as the season wore on and he picked up some injuries, averaging 6.9 targets per game over his final nine games as opposed to 9.6 per game, but he is a reliable floor option that you can lean on weekly.
Despite blocking on over half of his snaps, Rob Gronkowski is a testament on how the overall volume for an offense is relevant in generating opportunity as he ranked third on the list in routes run per game. When on the field, Gronk still is the top dog as he paced the position is points per game in both standard (11.3 points) and PPR formats (16.2)/ He averaged 15.7 yards per reception, the third consecutive season in which he’s eclipsed the 15.0 yards per catch mark.
Jimmy Graham is the poster boy for an elite pass-catching tight end that isn’t asked to block. Graham has run a pass route on 65.7 percent of his career snaps, a rate only bested by Eric Ebron (66.1 percent) as a career-mark. Turning 32-years old next season, Graham is coming off a 10-touchdown campaign in 2017 with seven of those touchdowns coming from 4-yards or closer. The downside is that Graham averaged a career-low 9.1 yards per reception and just 32.5 receiving yards per game, his lowest marks in both areas since his rookie season in 2010. Despite his pedestrian yardage while playing with Aaron Rodgers a year ago, Jordy Nelson still managed six touchdowns in five games with five of those coming from 10-yards and in, where Graham led the NFL in targets (16) a year ago. Even if he fails to regain his production downfield, Graham can be a glorified goal line option in Green Bay just as he was in Seattle and still make a fantasy impact at a depressed tight end position playing alongside Rodgers.
He doesn’t get high accolades, but Delanie Walker just continues to get consistent, tangible use and produces with that usage. Walker is the only player that ranked 11th or higher in all four columns above. He has now matched or bested his positional ADP in each of the five seasons as he has at least 60 receptions in five straight seasons with at least 100 targets and 800 receiving yards in four straight seasons. He does enter 2018 at 34-years old, but with the Titans due for a passing game scoring spike in 2018, he’s a reliable target for drafters wanted to stay patient on the position, while not fully waiting on the complete upside or streaming options.
A few teams have multiple tight ends on the radar and these rates can be a signal for how these scenarios could play out. The first is the Bears, who have two players with a small sample size to go off of but have already clued us in on their usage. Trey Burton parlayed a 23/238/5 2017 season into a lucrative deal, joining Adam Shaheen, whom Chicago selected with the 45th pick last spring. Matt Nagy used two tight ends on 40.4 percent of his passing plays in 2017 in Kansas City, which ranked fifth in the league, but Burton ran a pass route on 55.9 percent of his snaps in 2017 while Shaheen was at just a lowly 28.0 percent mark. Built more as a big wide receiver, Burton (6’3”, 235 pounds) should be expected to play more of a big slot role while the hulking Shaheen (6’5”, 270) should be leveraged as a blocker and red zone presence. Burton is a target in PPR formats, but Shaheen still can cap his touchdown upside as he carves out a role near the goal line.
Jack Doyle led all tight ends in snap rate, was fourth in routes run per game and ranked seventh in target rate per route a year ago. Now, he has Eric Ebron joining him in Indianapolis. No tight end has solely been used a receiver so far for their career as much as Ebron has, running a route on 66.1 percent of his career snaps. The good news for Doyle is that his routes run per snap weren’t inflated in 2017, running a route on 50 percent of his snaps as opposed to 49.3 percent in 2016. The bad news is that Doyle just isn’t an overly electric player -averaging just 8.5 yards per receptions on 174 career-catches- needing short scores and target volume to carry his floor. Both Doyle and Ebron can co-exist with 32 percent of Andrew Luck’s targets inside of the 10-yard line over the past four years going to tight ends, but they each stand to hurt each other’s weekly stability.
Unfortunately for us, Tampa Bay retained Cameron Brate on a healthy, six-year contract, so we aren’t completely in the clear for O.J. Howard’s ascendance. 60.5 percent of Brate’s career snaps have come while running a pass route and he’s ranked sixth and fifth in each of the past two seasons for all tight ends in routes run from the slot. Howard had lowly numbers overall in terms of passing game opportunity, but he was beginning to carve out a larger role in the offense before being placed on injured reserve after an ankle injury in Week 15. Over the five weeks prior to that injury, Howard was playing 73 percent of the offensive snaps after playing 62 percent prior while running the exact same number of pass routes (20 per game) as Brate over that stretch. Brate fell from 58 percent of the team snaps to 47 percent over that span and caught just six passes for 78 yards over those weeks.
Jordan Reed has missed multiple games due to injury now in all five of his seasons in the NFL and many fantasy owners have surely removed him completely from their draft board. Still, there’s a breaking point as to when you have to keep tabs on him since his price point is so much lower in 2018. If you can get double-digit games from him -something he did in each of the previous three seasons prior to 2017- you’re still getting a top-flight tight end overall with replacement value added on because we know Reed has potentially being the highest scorer at his position in his range of outcomes. The leader at the position in receptions and fantasy points on a per game basis over 2015-2016, Reed has ranked fourth, sixth and first in targets per route over the past three seasons. Owners that select him need to be consciously prepared to have a contingency plan, but he no longer carries a price tag in the opening six rounds of drafts like he did the previous two seasons, allowing you price in much of his injury floor.
Greg Olsen has had a miserable stretch of football over the past year and a half that has been compounded by injuries he’s sustained himself and to Cam Newton in 2016. Over his past 17 regular season games, Olsen has averaged just 3.4 receptions for 38.5 yards while scoring just two touchdowns. Over that span, he’s finished as a TE1 for fantasy scoring just five times. After returning from a fractured foot in Week 12 last season, Olsen had a 9-116-1 game and an 8-107-1 game in the playoffs, but just five catches for 47 yards in the other four weeks. Entering 2018 at age 33, Olsen will begin the season fresh and healthier than he left the previous two seasons, but he will have to string along more of those big weeks to be a weekly mainstay. He also will have the most target competition he’s ever had while in Carolina with Devin Funchess, Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore all in the fold for significant targets. Olsen should have more of a discount baked into his 2018 price point in fantasy based on his age, recent injury and more players to take targets from him.
Tyler Eifert played in just two games in 2017, sitting out the final 14 weeks of the season with a back injury. The injury was significant enough to dampen Eifert’s market in free agency as he settled for a one-year “prove it” deal to return to the Bengals. Eifert has shown elite touchdown upside, turning 15.7 percent of his career receptions into touchdowns, but he hasn’t been a high-volume player, receiving more than six targets in just eight career games. Target opportunity-wise, returning to the Bengals was always the best-case scenario as the Bengals have little outside of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton loves to utilize the tight end near the end zone. Eifert’s replacement Tyler Kroft caught seven touchdowns a year ago on just 62 targets. Playing in just 39-of-80 possible games to this point his career, Eifert is far from a stable option to go all in on as the only tight end on your roster but does open the season with a matchup versus the Colts for those missing out on the position and looking to swing from their heels.
Potential Breakouts and the Stream Team
George Kittle’s low snap count has been mentioned as a reason to express caution with him entering 2018, but you can see that when he was on the field, he was running passing routes, ranking eighth in the group in routes run per snap. Kittle really shined playing with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, catching 15-of-19 targets for 224 yards, while averaging 14.9 yards per reception after catching 28-of-44 targets for 291 yards from the other San Francisco passers, averaging 10.4 yards per grab. Over the final five weeks of the season, only Rob Gronkowski posted more yards per route run than Kittle’s 2.57 yards per route.
Vance McDonald’s season totals don’t do him justice as he was traded to Pittsburgh right before the start of the season and then missed six games due to injury, but McDonald came on as the season wrapped up. McDonald caught four or more passes for over 50-yards receiving in three of his final four games in 2017, including a 10-catch, 112-yard performance in the playoffs. He’s still very clearly the fourth option at best in the Pittsburgh passing game, but McDonald opens the season with the Browns for those strictly looking to target a matchup play out of the box in 2018.
Converting from wide receiver to tight end during his rookie season, Ricky Seals-Jones only caught 12 passes in 2017, but what he did with his opportunities still should have your attention if he’s able to clear training camp with a larger role in the offense this season. Seals-Jones led all tight ends in yards per catch (16.8) and target rate per route run (41.2 percent) over his limited sample. With a barren cupboard of offensive playmakers outside of Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson and Jermaine Gresham coming off a torn Achilles that he suffered in Week 17 of last year, Seals-Jones should be forced into a larger receiving role in 2018.
Only Ertz was targeted at a higher rate per route than Charles Clay, but Clay ranked 21st in passing route opportunity per game. Clay was ninth at the position in targets per game (5.7) in 2017 and has little in his way to receiving a healthy share of the targets in Buffalo, but he’s had four or fewer touchdowns in six of his seven seasons and hasn’t had more than 558 yards in any of his three seasons with the Bills because they’ve run such a consistent, low-leverage offense.
Did you know Ben Watson was a TE1 last year in totality? He was hardly flashy and accrued his fantasy totals in a Jason Witten-like fashion of not getting injured while being mundane, but Watson ranked 10th in routes run per snap and 12th in routes run per game and now has a role on a Saints offense due for a passing touchdown spike. Watson was the TE8 when he last played in New Orleans in 2015 and while we can’t expect for the 38-year old tight end to replicate that season, Watson is coming off a year where he still managed 61 receptions and is the cheapest attachment to Drew Brees that you can find in drafts while opening the season with the Browns, Giants and Washington in three of his opening five games, three teams that were in the bottom-5 in points allowed to opposing tight ends a year ago.