Fantasy Football Tight End Report: The Overhyped
Andrew Cooper takes a look at some tight ends that get a lot of recognition around the industry but are being overhyped.
We at Fantasy Alarm are fantasy analysts. There are no players we don’t “like”. Not even Tyreek Hill – never met the guy. The only NFL player I personally know is Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman and that's because I used to hand him the ball so that he could steamroll all the other unsuspecting children in southern Massachusetts. He’s a great guy. So, when we write these types of articles, it’s nothing personal. We like these guys. They are phenomenal athletes. What we don’t like, though, is their average draft position in fantasy football.
So yes, we write these articles about players not to draft because it’s something our readers need to know. It’s nothing personal – it’s actually based deeply on cold hard statistics while doing our best to look at them through the known narratives of this upcoming year. We’ve given you the elite. We’ve given you the guys who could be elite. And, next week, we are going to give you those sweet, sweet, league winning late round flyers that you so desperately crave. However, before we do that, we need to take a step back and protect you from the most heinous team killing of all. The overhyped tight end.
So far in the series we have analyzed the tight end position based on the metrics that our rigorous research has deemed important. As a quick reminder, these are the qualities that we’ve found most often in the top tier elite tight ends over the years.
Plays on over 90-percent of offensive snaps
Pass blocks on only 5-to-10-percent of passing snaps
First or second option in passing offense
Average depth of target greater than ~seven yards
Red zone prowess
Speed = YAC boost
A full breakdown of what metrics we drill into as part of the process can be found in our series intro. If you are just tuning in or, even if you’ve read the first two articles in the series, it might not be a bad idea to give that intro a quick once over and brush up on your YACs, your aDOTs, and your ZIRPs before we move forward because we are going full steam ahead at this point. Also, ZIRP is completely made up and it’s not a real stat so don’t worry about that one. Just testing ya.
Once again we will give you The Good, The Bad, and our Conclusion for each player but we don’t really need to give you a Buy or Sell recommendation in this article because everyone listed is a sell based on their ADP. If you already drafted them, they are now a double sell before reality comes crashing down so fire up that trade block. If you finish reading this and disagree, then I welcome the inevitable polite and rational discussion about it on Twitter, @CoopAFiasco.
The Good: As with everyone on this list, David Njoku has some good qualities, that’s for sure. It would be too easy to just say “yeah don’t draft Virgil Green ”. For this article to hold an weight there has to be good players on this list. Last year Njoku played a damn near elite number of snaps for the Browns with 871 which amounts to an 80-percent snap share. He only pass-blocked on 8.5-percent of his pass snaps (which is smack dab in our five percent to ten percent elite range), his average depth of target was great at 8.9 yards, and he had 280 yards of YAC on 56 catches for a healthy five yards of YAC per reception. All three of those stats fit our elite profile. In fact, though not at the fully elite level, his HOG rate of 11.4-percent, his red zone target share of 14.5-percent, and his end zone target share of 19-percent were all pretty darn good too. Seriously, what is there not to like?
The Bad: In the O.J. Howard section of the previous article in this series, we gave you an elaborate break down of the teams that have had three players with over 100 targets each over the last five years. Spoiler alert – it’s, like, practically none. Six teams out of the last 160 or a rate of 3.75-percent, and only one team over the last two years, which happened to have three guys make it due to their massive target hog, Odell Beckham, getting hurt so that another Giant, Sterling Shepherd, could barely crack 100 targets. Oh and did we mention that same target Sarlacc is now firmly planted as the WR1 on Njoku’s team? Odell Beckham, over his career, has commanded 10.54 targets per game and that’s including games he didn’t start as a rookie and games he left with injury so I could have been even higher. That projects to ~169 targets over a 16 game season. Not to mention that Jarvis Landry has averaged 151.75 targets himself over the last four seasons including 149 on the Browns just last year. Now, only JuJu Smith-Schuster /Antonio Brown and Stefon Diggs /Adam Thielen each had targets in the 150+ range on the same team last year, but based on the research we presented previously, even if they each only have a measly 100 targets, that’s basically a death sentence for Njoku’s chance of reaching the minimum target threshold to be an elite tier tight end.
Count Njoku ponders how he’s going to wrestle targets from the pit of LSU.
Conclusion: Want to know how serious I am about this take? In the early stages of my research, when I had really only finished compiling the metrics listed in The Good, I was leading the Njoku charge. I even drafted him in early July in the most prestigious fantasy league there is, the Scott Fish Bowl. But that was when we were still in the land of hypothesis and butterflies, before the science was complete and the inconvenient truth was exposed. And I’m willing to admit that I was wrong if that’s what the numbers say. That’s how science works.
Anyone who has been paying attention to the NFL over the last couple years knows that Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are not the most humble or conservative guys out there. And now the former college teammates will join forces as an unstoppable locker room presence that demands a sacrifice of targets. Not only do I believe they would complain about not getting thrown the ball themselves, but I’m confident that Beckham would complain if Juice isn’t getting the ball enough and vice versa. Combine that with the fact that Njoku had the worst drop rate of all tight ends who got at least 30 targets at 12.5-percent, dropping 8 of 64 catchable balls, and it’s hard to believe that Njoku is going to be able to command the looks necessary to be worth his ADP as a top 10 tight end off the board. There is of course the chance of injury or that they beat the odds and all three get 100-plus targets including the 110-plus Njoku would need to be elite, but we are not in the business of projecting statistically unlikely occurrences. That being said, if Landry or Beckham get injured then trade for Njoku as quickly and quietly as you can because he is very good and the targets are the main issue. If he has a down year as suspected, then I would target him in any dynasty leagues as well because he just turned 23 and he will one day shine.
The Good: We all love a good redemption story and Eric Ebron is certainly one. Labeled a “bust” after being picked at 10 overall in the draft then fizzling out with the Lions, he bounced back and dropped a tight end four overall season in the first year with his best new buddy Andrew Luck . And a lot of our favorite metrics are certainly there, my boy. Ebron led all tight ends in TWO different massively important metrics per PlayerProfiler.com – Hog Rate (18.6-percent) and End Zone Target Share (35.6-percent). To put that Hog Rate number in perspective, for every five snaps Ebron was on the field he basically got thrown one pass. And of the passes that Luck threw to players in the end zone, over a third of them went to Ebron. He also had an elite aDOT of 9.4 yards and he only blocked on two percent of his pass plays so, when he was out there, he was out there to do damage.
The Bad: For Ebron, he’s not just going to have the issue of maintaining those unsustainable high target stats while he’s on the field – he might even have an issue just getting on the field. Last year Jack Doyle got hurt and, while he was out, Ebron was logging snap shares of 88, 83, and 71 percent. In the first two weeks before getting hurt however, Jack Doyle logged 94-percent and 97-percent to Ebron’s 45-percent and 28-percent. “Well, Ebron earned himself a larger role cause he played so gosh darned well while filling in” is what you would hypothetically say to me. To which I would reply “well, actually, when Doyle came back healthy in games 9, 10, and 11, he played 73-percent, 87-percent and 82-percent of snaps in the next two games before getting hurt again while Ebron played only 22-percent, 38-percent, and 40-percent”. You see, Ebron is not a good blocker while Doyle is. And Ebron, who has been plagued by drops in his career, dropped five balls again while Doyle dropped none. Even if Ebron has earned himself some extra looks this season, Doyle is still the teacher's pet in that offense and will be taking a big chunk of the snaps. Which limits Ebron’s ceiling – the topic of this entire series on elite tight ends.
Conclusion: In the past the Colts have sustained two fantasy relevant tight ends like Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen but their usage was out of necessity as they didn’t have a split end. You need seven guys tethered to the line of scrimmage per NFL rules and, as TY Hilton is only 5’9” 180, they would use two tight ends so that he could play flanker and get a free release without getting jammed. This year they gave Devin Funchess $10 million dollars to put his big 6’4”, 230 pound foot on the line and get punched in the mouth while Hilton, Campbell, Hines and whoever can run around unhindered. The reality of having another true split end out there is that they likely won’t have too many snaps with all three of the big boys out there meaning a rotation of sorts and we can say goodbye to that large snap share that a tight end requires in order to be elite. Ebron will likely still score some touchdowns but trying to guess which week that happens is not a game that we would like to play with a guy who currently costs a 6th or 7th round pick. He’s the perfect guy for your league mate to draft – you know, the guy who just looks at last years stats and FantasyPros Consensus Rankings the morning? Let him take Ebron and you can wait on Vance McDonald or Jared Cook who will actually play a full workload.
The Good: Here’s another guy, much like David Njoku , who was able to pull off a near elite snap share of 80-percent last year playing 860 snaps. Not many guys are playing that quantity of tight end snaps and some of them, like Tyler Higbee with 789, are blocking far too often to be fantasy relevant, leaving us with a fairly small pool of elite snap guys. Burton only blocked on 4.9-percent of his pass snaps putting him right on the good side of our elite range and he had a 19.2-percent target share in the red zone last year. His average depth of target was 7.7 yards (which is above our threshold), he ran a 4.62 forty yard dash (so he’s not slow by any means), and caught 69-percent of his passes (which is good – same as Travis Kelce ). A nice player who finished as the TE7 in half point PPR, seems like a lot of The Good, no?
I mean, at this point in the series you have to know that The Bad is lurking
The Bad: As we’ve mentioned, one the easiest ways to identify a breakout is to find a guy whose metrics are great but he had a low snap share/ target share and could become elite just by keeping similar usage and having his snaps increase. Well, Trey Burton is a bit of the opposite of that. At over 850 snaps, his snap share is pretty much maxed. And, even with Allen Robinson out and Anthony Miller having one arm hanging on by a thread, he only got an 8.1-percent end zone target share. His Hog Rate was also alarmingly low at 9.6-percent. That’s the same neighborhood as the Cameron Bates, Mike Gesicki s, and Dallas Goedert s of the world. That’s not at all where you want to live and those numbers should only get worse with Robinson and Anthony Miller healthy, the addition of more pass catching backs in David Montgomery and Mike Davis , and only Jordan Howard leaving who honestly has hands like frying pans anyway. We want the guys who are getting more opportunity at work, not changing how they do their job, because that’s much harder to predict.
Conclusion: A common fantasy strategy is to fade tight end completely. Just wait until the end when all your league mates have taken someone and then maybe you take TWO guys from whoever is left. One will be good right? Well, if you do that, you may see Trey Burton still sitting there at tight end 14, in round 11 or 12, and think “hey, there’s no one left and last year’s TE7 is just sitting there, why not?”. The reason why not is because you don’t want to settle for a tight end with limited upside at any point in the draft. Not early, not late. And not only does Burton not have much room to grow metric wise but he’s also missed almost all of the offseason having the same hernia surgery in May that Devonta Freeman had last October which sidelined him for 10 weeks. He’s expected to play Week 1 but he’s still not back as of now and the last thing you need is to have a low ceiling tight end showing up rusty and getting a slow start then having his bye week early in week six. Not the headache you want, partner.
The Good: For our end zone and red zone target share metrics, we said that around 25-percent or so was considered top-tier elite level. So how does a 21.4-percent red zone target share and a 26.8-percent end zone target share sound? Both of those puppies were right around the top five for tight ends last year. Rudolph also played an elite 88-percent of snaps, his aDOT and YAC were serviceable, he had a super low drop rate of 1.5-percent, and coincidently high catch rate of 71.76-percent. People may not realize that he was TE8 overall last year – finished higher than Njoku, Vance McDonald , Rob Gronkowski , Evan Engram , and OJ Howard. And he got 132 targets on this team just two years ago. Stud, am I right?
The Bad: Let's start off right away by calling back a stat line we dropped earlier in this very same article – Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen each had ~150 targets last year. Remember those stats about three guys with over 100-plus targets and how it doesn’t happen often. Well, those guys didn’t go anywhere. You know who did go somewhere? Irv Smith Jr. moved from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to Minneapolis, Minnesota. And he’s not there to block. At 6’2”, 242 pounds, and a 4.63 fourty-yard dash, he is your prototypical “move” tight end meaning that Rudolph is going to be tasked with the lionshare of the blocking duties, if anyone is. And after already blocking on 11.6-percent of his pass snaps last year, Rudolph was already blocking way too much for our liking and the team apparently wants to run even more this year. If the Vikings moved on from Rudolph, Irv Smith Jr. might have been a guy being recommended in this article. Heck, based on what we know about successful rookie tight ends, Irv Smith Jr. profiles as the Evan Engram type who only goes out for passes and he only could carve out a pass catching role as soon as late this year. I’ve got an eye out.
Conclusion: As a Rudolph truther, it pains me to say it but the Rudolph fantasy experiment has very likely come to an end with this team configuration and game plan. He had his peak year with 132 targets in 2016 and boy was it glorious for us but, with Diggs and Theilen in town, his recent ceiling has been ~80 targets or so. Now with a healthy Dalvin Cook and Irv Smith Jr. looming, the ceiling is the floor for our friend the Red Zone Reindeer and you can forget wasting that roster spot no matter how late he’s available. He’s a good real life, NFL TE that maybe could resurrect a couple more fantasy relevant years in another setting, but given the current circumstances, he’s likely relegated to a life of blocking in the pastures.
The Good: To be quite frank with you, the good was that he caught some passes from a young QB who should be better this year. A few of them were downfield (aDOT of 11 yards which is very high) and four went for touchdowns so there’s that. In fact, people see a rookie year of 500 yards and four touchdowns and they think “hey now Coop – you told me rookie tight ends don’t particularly fair well but that’s pretty good for a rookie!”. And it is, it’s fine. But, as you can probably tell from the tone of this section, there are some red flags here.
The Bad: The good section is short mostly because there wasn’t much of it in terms of our fantasy metrics. He blocked on 16.1- of his pass snaps which is wayyy too high – that’s on par with guys like Virgil Green (which we literally used as an example of an obvious non relevant fantasy tight end earlier). 15-to-20 percent is Jeff Heurman blocking territory - you don’t want your tight end blocking on one of every five or six pass snaps when being targeted on one of every nine or ten pass snaps is considered awesome. At 4.73 seconds, his 40 yard dash time was also at the low end of the spectrum where he isn’t likely to have a ton of YAC or break off big plays. He was also only targeted on eight-percent of end zone plays and, being the biggest pass catchers on the field, end zone targets are our tight end bread and butter. As we talked about with Trey Burton , this player requires a complete change of usage this season to be relevant as even a low end startable tight end. It’s possible but it’s proven to be difficult to predict.
Conclusion: I honestly didn’t think I’d have to tell people to not draft Chris Herndon in redraft leagues. But I consistently have people bringing him up as a late round flyer, asking if he is someone they should target as a “sleeper”. This dude is suspended for four games and the Jets have a week four bye week so his first game back will be week six. If your definition of “sleeper” is putting up guaranteed zeros for five weeks and then maybe being a tight end 2 then yeah, this guy is asleep for sure. Not only that, but, as we just laid out, he does not profile at all right now as a guy who could break out with an elite season. Despite his limited output he actually quietly did play a huge number of snaps last year. He played 625 snaps compared to 414 for a guy like Mark Andrews who actually only scored four less points than him last year. Our boy Eric Ebron up there played 633 snaps so they had pretty much the same opportunity snap-wise. So Chris Herndon is being included here for a very specific reason and that is to prevent people from clogging up a valuable bench spot for FIVE weeks while they wait for him to come back and likely not produce. If he does anything at all week 6, you can probably just pick him up off waivers because he should be undrafted. Or feel free to draft him with your very last pick so that you can you can drop him for literally anyone and maybe another team will do you the favor of adding him. Sorry for lashing out a bit with this one – I’m just tired of this fantasy hype for a guy who is going to miss A THIRD of the fantasy season as punishment for almost killing a 76 year old man with an SUV while driving drunk.
And that’s that. Once again we need to thank Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference, Player Profiler, The Football Guys Database, NFL Savant, Warren Sharp, and AirYards.com for allowing us to stand on the shoulders of giants and deliver this analysis. Stay tuned as next week we will give you fantasy’s golden goose that allows you to accumulate talent in the early going of your draft – the late round breakout tight end. Follow us on Twitter @FantasyAlarm and @CoopAFiasco.