Tight end. The mythical half lineman, half receiver – like football’s version of a sphinx or centaur. And much like these legendary creatures, they are fantasy football’s great enigma. Some fantasy gamers try to avoid the conundrum all together by reaching for the top ranked guy. Some wait until most of them have gone and just take whatever’s leftover. Others allow themselves to be caught up in the wave of the “tight end run”, grasping for whoever’s next on their ranking sheet and leaving the fate of their season to the Fantasy Gods. Luckily for you, we’re here with our tight end series to help unravel the mystery of the fantasy tight end so that you can tackle this beast head on in 2019. 

(Rare Image of Gronk & Kelce battling it out to be TE1 in 2017)

This offseason we’ve done a deep dive into recent elite fantasy tight ends as well as the great tight ends of yesteryear to see what makes them tick. Here are some of the important traits that we’ve found among elite tight ends in terms of fantasy production.

Plays Over 90-percent of Offensive Snaps

The top tier fantasy tight ends are trustworthy in both the run and passing game which allows them to stay on the field at all times. Being a liability in one or more phases to the point that it limits the player’s snap count greatly reduces their chance of being an elite tight end. You may think that only pass catching ability matters but teams aren’t going to switch tight ends in and out every play so, if you are subbing out for some run plays, you are likely missing some pass plays too.

Pass Blocks on Only 5-to-10-Percent of Passing Plays

This is where the balancing act comes in. You want your tight end to be good enough at blocking that he doesn’t come out but not such a good blocker that he’s more valuable as part of the protection than the attack. A tight end like Tyler Higbee can play a near elite number of snaps (788) and not have elite fantasy production if he is asked to block on a high number of pass plays (he blocked on 137 pass snaps in 2018 or 36.8-percent of pass plays he was in for). However, blocking on less than 5-percent of pass snaps typically indicates the tight end is not a trustworthy blocker which can cause them to come off the field (which, as we mentioned, is bad). When OJ Howard went down, it should have been a great opportunity for Cameron Brate but both the stats and tape revealed that he was taken off the field at times in favor of a better blocker in Anthony Auclair which limited his usage (Brate only blocked on 4 pass snaps and had a well below average run blocking grade per ProFootballFocus). We found that pass blocking on 5-percent to 10-percent of passing snaps is a healthy percentage where the super elite tight ends typically live.

First or Second Option in Passing Offense

This seems like common sense but a shift from year to year in utilization, whether due to a change in personnel or a change in scenery, can have a drastic effect on a player’s fantasy production, as we’ve seen with players like Jimmy Graham . In prolific passing offenses, a player can succeed as the third or even fourth option but, ideally, they would be one of the focal points of the pass game. For this we look at a player’s percentage of the team’s workload as well us surrounding options for the upcoming season. We also take a peek into their catch/drop rates to see how reliable they are. High volume players, especially those going downfield, are almost always going to have some drops because their QB trusts them enough to throw into tight windows but an abnormally high drop rate, especially combined with low completion percentage and low target shares within the scoring area, can give us some meaningful insight into a player's trust level (or lack-thereof). 

Average Depth of Target is Greater Than 7-Yards

We are looking for primary receiving options, not safety valves or check downs. That means we’d prefer guys who are running actual routes down field rather than just chip blocks and dump offs in the flats. Luckily, Josh Hermsmeyer created a site, AirYards.com, that tracks this info for us so we can see how the sausage is made. Take these two players for example:

  1. 69 catches for 1,083 yards and 8 touchdowns, YAC of 344
  2. 80 catches for 690 yards and 4 touchdowns, YAC of 337

Both players had pretty much the same yards after the catch and player B actually caught more passes on the year, but player A had the much better fantasy season as tight end 1 in half point PPR while player B was tight end 9. That’s because player A was 2017 Rob Gronkowski and had an average depth of target of 12.1 yards while player B was 2017 Jack Doyle and had an average depth of target of 4.9 yards. Bottom line with this stat – we want the big boys who are going down field.

Red Zone Prowess

Touchdowns can be a difficult stat to predict due to how circumstantial they are, but a general rule of thumb is that, the more red zone and end zone targets you receive, the more likely you are to score touchdowns. Even then we can’t predict exactly how many times any given player will score but we can look at their usage trends to find out who is likely to get looks in that part of the field. For that we are focusing on red zone and end zone target shares provided by Matt Kelley’s brainchild - PlayerProfiler.com. RZ and EZ target shares of 25-percent+ are ideal but anything over 20-percent gives you the potential to be elite, based on the trends we’ve seen.

Speed = YAC Boost

It’s not always a necessity for a tight end to have blazing speed but there is certainly a correlation between yards after the catch and speed - that’s been known since the days we all played on the blacktop at recess. Tight ends that run their 40 in the 4.4 to 4.6 range can provide a yardage boost compared to some of their plodding counterparts.

Application

What we are going to do in this series is take what we currently statistically know and, along with some narratives for the upcoming season surrounding the player, provide you some insight as to who could be this year’s fantasy unicorns. To do this we’ve used resources such as Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference, Player Profiler, The Football Guys Database, NFL Savant, and AirYards.com to crunch some numbers of interest and provide meaningful data. Based on that info, we’ve divided our tight end series up into four parts covering four different groups: players who are currently elite, players who could be elite this season, guys to avoid, and late round tight ends you need to own.

Before we get started it is important to note that there is a difference between how you rank someone and whether they are worth their ADP. Just because we think one tight end has a good chance of having the third best fantasy stats doesn’t mean he should be drafted right after the first two tight ends or drafted at or near his ADP at all. If the TE3 goes in the third round and scores 190 points and the TE 4 goes in the sixth and scores 180 points, the guy who waited on the TE4 is the winner here. To help you get the most of this series we are also going to provide a BUY or SELL recommendation based on their ADP so you can target guys accordingly.


So, without further ado, lets start by discussing the tight ends who are already ELITE.   

 

Travis Kelce

The Good: Travis Kelce is the gold standard right now in terms of fantasy tight ends. Excluding week 17, when the Chiefs rested their starters before the playoffs, he played on a whopping 96-percent of snaps last season. Of the 664 pass snaps he was in on, he only blocked on 42 for a cool 6.3-percent pass blocking percentage. His average depth of target (aDOT) was 9.5 yards which is top tier, he averaged 5.8 yards after the catch per reception, and he accounted for roughly 25-percent of the team’s red zone and end zone targets. Per Player Profiler’s “hog rate” metric, which attempts to account for the number of times a player is targeted when they are in the game, he had a hog rate of 16-percent which also is top tier for fantasy tight ends (anything above 15-percent seems to be elite for this metric with anything below 10-percent meaning they are underutilized in the passing game). No matter which way you shake it really, Kelce is a certified stud and everything came together perfectly for him in 2018.

The Bad: There’s really not much here. Regression seems natural for Mahomes after his insane season but his QB going from “amazing” to “really good” shouldn’t hurt Kelce all that much, if that does happen. I guess you could say that Kelce isn’t much of a speedster though a 4.66 forty at his size isn’t anything to sneeze at either. He does turn 30 this season but he hasn’t shown signs of slowing down yet.

(Not winning many real races but he’s clearly the imaginary sack race champ)

Conclusion: Buy. Kelce is the safest bet out there production-wise which is why he’s the near consensus tight end 1. We personally like to wait on tight end but, if your strategy is to draft one guy and draft him early, then this is an official green light to take Kelce in the second round, if that’s how you roll. In the third round he should be a no brainer for everyone.

Zach Ertz

The Good: As a sucker for safety and consistency, Zach Ertz is my second ranked tight end. He fits the profile in terms of quite of a few of our important metrics (played 92-percent of snaps in 2018, pass blocked on only 7.3-percent of pass snaps, 16.4-percent hog rate, ~32-percent red zone target share, ~29-percent end zone target share, 71.76-percent catch percentage, 4.9-percent drop rate). Carson Wentz loves him and there’s no reason to believe that’s just going to stop all of a sudden after another successful season.

The Bad: If, as with wide receivers, there was something called a “possession tight end”, Ertz would be the prime example. His average depth of target of 7.2 yards isn’t stellar and he doesn’t offer much in the YAC category with only 3.3 yards after the catch per reception. The limited YAC makes sense considering he doesn’t exactly fly out there having run a subpar 40 time of 4.76. The short targets also pour a little water on his stellar catch and drop rates as it’s clear he’s getting a lot of balls that are easy to make plays on as opposed to difficult passes down field. He does catch a million passes which is what makes him such a safe play but, like the Julian Edelman s of the league, it’s hard to project him being the top at his position without that explosive big play potential some of the other guys have.

Conclusion: Sell. At his current ADP of 28 overall in half point PPR based on FantasyPros we don’t love taking Ertz this year. Besides the cons discussed above, a healthy receiving core for the Eagles, the additions of DeSean Jackson and Mile Sanders, and the potential emergence of second year tight end Dallas Goedert make it feel like you are paying for a ceiling that might not be hit again and won’t be surpassed. They even have a legitimate pound for pound clone on hand in JJ Arcega-Whiteside ready to take the place of the oft injured Alshon Jeffery if need be. If Ertz makes it to the fourth round and you aren’t comfortable with the wide receivers or runningbacks left at that point then feel free to take him but our advice is to let someone else pull that trigger and wait on an upside guy at an ADP that will generate positive value.

George Kittle

The Good: George Kittle came screaming onto the scene last year, essentially taking over the 49ers’ offense. He played on 95-percent of meaningful snaps and had a 15-percent hog rate while he was out there. He had an insane 873 yards of YAC leading all players, not just tight ends, which showed off his 4.52 forty-yard dash. Yes, George Kittle had more yards after the catch than Christian McCaffrey , Tyreek Hill , you name it. His red zone target share of 26-percent and endzone target share of 33-percent is exactly what you want to see from your tight end.

The Bad: Though 873 yards after the catch is phenomenal, it’s also our biggest concern. Kittle was tied for second with guys like TY Hilton and Tyler Lockett with 6 plays of 40+ yards which is only behind Tyreek Hill s 8 in 2018. 4.52 is fast for a tight end forty-yard dash but consistently having that many long plays is typically reserved for guys in the 4.2 – 4.3 range like Hill, Lockett, and TY themselves. He had touchdowns of 71, 82, and 85 yards last year which isn’t likely to be replicable and we should see his YAC per reception drop from the 10.2 yards we saw last year. His average depth of target was only 7.1 yards in 2018 and 7.2 yards in 2018 so, without breaking a bunch of those long plays off, his numbers should come back to earth a bit. The Kittle-cat is also out of the bag now so he will be a priority for defenses.

Conclusion: Sell. Along with the stats above, Kittle pass blocked on 11.5-percent of his snaps which is a little high for a guy who’s supposed to be a primary pass catcher. A lot of people point at Jimmy G as a plus for him but Kittle was actually relied upon heavily by the QBs last year and better quarterbacks tend to spread the ball around more. Much like Ertz, at his current ADP of 29, it feels like you are paying up for his ceiling where it’s not only unlikely he improves this year but it’s unlikely that he even replicates last year. If he does somehow replicate his 2018 then he’ll be the undisputed tight end 1 overall in 2020 but the metrics suggest 2018 was an outlier so we’ll let someone else take that gamble in 2019.

 
 

(Paying up for Kitty this year could end up biting you in the ass)

 

Evan Engram

The Good: The number one knock on Engram is that he’s just a pass catching tight end because he’s a “poor blocker” but, if you look at the first couple games of last year, he was playing ~90-percent of the offensive snaps before his injury battles started. Besides Ertz, Kelce, Kittle, Greg Olsen , and Kyle Rudolph , no other tight end was playing more than 81-percent of snaps last season when healthy. He pass blocked on 4.8-percent of snaps which is a bit low but, as long as he’s not coming out of the game in favor of better blockers on other snaps, then that is actually an ideal number. Based on the metrics available, Engram is easily the fastest starting tight end in the league, having run a 4.42 forty-yard dash, meaning that his high YAC per reception of 9 yards per catch could potentially be sustainable and should at least remain towards the high end of the spectrum.

The Bad: Last year in his 11 hobbled games he was below our elite cut off marks in hog rate (14.4-percent), red zone target share (12.5-percent) and end zone target share (15.2-percent) which indicated that, despite being out there for a ton of snaps, he wasn’t really getting as many looks as he should. He also had an alarmingly low aDOT of 5.3 yards meaning he was hanging around the line of scrimmage a lot, likely due to a combination of having to help with blocking to protect Eli and the ankle, knee, and hamstring injuries limiting his ability to get downfield. His awful catch rate (55.7-percent) and drop rate (14.7-percent) numbers improved from his rookie year to 70.3-percent and 6.3-percent his sophomore year but those still aren’t ideal levels and the concern is that the low depth of target may have boosted those stats, as with Ertz. If those numbers were to be the new normal for him then he’d have a very uphill battle to finish as a top tight end.  

Conclusion:  Buy. We project that Engram takes a step forward this year after an injury fueled step backwards last year and becomes one of the league’s premier tight ends. He showed promise with an increased snap count on a per game basis from his rookie year and now, with Odell Beckham gone and a myriad of injuries and suspensions to the receiving core already, he might actually be the top option in the passing game for the first time in his career. If you take the metrics we are focusing on and look at Engram’s 2017, his aDot was 8.8 yards, his hog rate was 15.5-percent, and his red zone and end zone target shares were both around 25-percent which are all elite levels. If you combine those metrics with the full workload of snaps we expect, a world exists where he has all the same elite metrics as Travis Kelce with better speed and he could be THE tight end 1 overall. However, a world also exists where the Giants are a full-on dumpster fire that switches to a rookie QB mid-season putting a serious damper on fantasy production for everyone. Because of that, Engram has one of the highest ceilings and lowest floors of all of the tight ends which is why we’ve got him just outside the top 3 in our rankings. Regardless, with a late fifth, early sixth round ADP, we like taking the risk on Engram here much more than going up and grabbing Ertz or Kittle in the second or third round since he could easily outproduce them with a price tag 30 picks later.

And that’s it for your tight ends who are currently elite based on the metrics. Next week we will dive into the tight ends who have the chance to surpass these four and win you a fantasy championship!

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