Fantasy Football Tight End Preview: Know the Scheme
Andrew Cooper breaks down some tight ends to target and explains how coaching scheme can impact value.
If you read our first tight end article in this series last Friday or our pre-season tight end guide last year, you already know how heavily we weigh analytics and metrics in our decision making process. If you are tuning in for the first time, then feel free to clicks those links or just take our word for it – it’s a lot. Watching highlights and calling yourself a “film grinder” is all well and good but the fact of the matter is that we all watch football. Watching football is just about my favorite thing to do, in fact. But the thing about watching football is that it doesn’t always tell you why certain things happen, and it certainly doesn’t tell you what’s going to happen – it just tells you what happened.
We are here to talk about fantasy football where all that matters is what happens next. And instead of watching highlights of 250 pound freaks of nature stiff -arming each other into the shadow-realm for our entertainment, we decided to do the actual work an analyze the numbers behind the scenes to figure out what is really going on and what we can expect this season, if and when there is a season.
In this particular article, we are going to take a moment to spotlight one of the under looked driving forces behind what happens on the field – coaching. The guys who decide what a team is going to do well before they try and do it. And when it comes to the tight end position, the head coach, offensive coordinator, and their scheme might have a more profound impact on the tight end position than any other in the game. Need some examples? Alright.
Even though this is supposed to be about the Dolphins, it’s really about one guy. Adam Gase. He’s been an incredibly divisive coach with some calling him an offensive mastermind (Broncos fans, for instance) and others calling him a bug-eyed destroyer of franchises (Dolphins fans). In the tight end community, however, there is really only one conclusion that we’ve come to: he’s bad for business.
(Let’s take a Gase-level look at his past tight end usage)
Your first thought might be “how could the guy who produced Julius Thomas possibly be considered bad for tight ends? Orange Julius scored 24 touchdowns over two seasons!” Well yes, he did. But when you start to peel away the layers there, you find that success was actually in spite of his usage in that offense, not because of it. Here are his stats during those two years which are admittedly good.
He finished tight end #3 overall in 2013 and tight end #9 in 2014, 12 touchdowns each season which you can’t possibly complain about. Now let’s complain.
First off, during that span, Peyton Manning was playing absolutely outside of his mind. Over two years he threw for 10,204 yards and 94 touchdowns. Yes, those numbers are real. He AVERAGED 5,100 yards and 47 touchdowns over those two seasons. During that period you could have scored a touchdown in Denver by accident just by wearing your Broncos jersey into a Papa Johns. So, let’s look at the actual usage for Julius Thomas to see how he was being deployed.
If you have been tuning in to these so far you can recognize right away that’s not good. Pass blocking on one of every four pass plays crushes your ceiling as a tight end. Blocking on half of your snaps in general isn’t the end of the world in a balanced offense but the 2013 Broncos threw the ball 60% of the time in 2013. Thomas was clearly not a designated part of the attack spending a good chunk as part of the protection. And that shows when you consider that he had the fourth most targets on the team both years behind some combinations of Demaryius Thomas , Eric Decker , Emmanuel Sanders , and Wes Welker. We just got finished last article saying that you want your tight end to be one of the top two targets and the reason is because your QB needs to throw for 5 million yards and 50 TD passes for him to be relevant as the 4th target.
Now, why are we talking about random Broncos teams of yesteryear again? Well we show you all that just to show you this. Here is Dolphin’s tight end Mike Gesicki ’s usage in 2018 under Adam Gase.
Business as usual right? He finished with 22 catches for 202 yards and 0 TDs. Well, here’s how Mike Gesicki ’s usage looked under Brian Flores in 2019.
As my father says after I chunk a ball into the water then put my next shot right down the fairway -“same guy”. Two back to back years with drastically different usages and outcomes. Here he finished with 51 catches for 570 yards and 5 TDs. He went from blocking on one of every five pass plays under Adam Gase to blocking on one of every thirty-something under Brian Flores. Not to mention, under Gase, he ran 60 routes from the slot or 27.5% of his snaps. With Flores? 374 snaps. He ran 71.8% of his snaps from the slot in 2019 – the highest percentage of any tight end in the league.
Of course, we don’t know for sure what Gase has planned for this year. No one does. But we can tell you this. Here are his tight end pass blocking stats from 2019.
Chris Herndon missed four games with a DUI suspension then got hurt in his return but, in the limited sample size including preseason and his one regular season game, he played on 31 pass snaps and blocked on 9 of them which is 29%. He played 66 total snaps and blocked on 31 of them or 47%. Small sample size of course but reminds us a lot of Mr. Gesicki and Mr. Orange Julius. So, for us this little tale gives us two conclusions. We are probably in on Mike Gesicki . And we are likely out on Chris Herndon .
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Going into last season we warned you against OJ Howard with a sell recommendation at his ADP. If you do revisit that article linked above, you’ll notice that we suggested to fade him mostly because of a target distribution issue that we predicted (which did end up being part of the problem). But what we didn’t realize is there would be another issue further compounding the troubles for OJ Howard. And that issue is Bruce Arians.
(Here he is giving his acceptance speech for the “Most Likely To Request Piano Man At The Bar” award)
It would be easy for us to say, “yeah we were right – not enough targets for Howard with Godwin and Evans there”. And we will once again now say that we were right about that. But what we didn’t predict in that article is how the tight end would look in the Bruce Arians version of the Buccaneers. Here are those same usage stats we like looking at for the last two years for OJ Howard.
Yucky. He went from playing 55% of his snaps in the slot and blocking on 10% of snaps (which 10% is still towards the higher end of where we want to live) to playing 36% from the slot and blocking on 15% of pass plays. He actually took less total slot snaps in 2019 than 2018 despite playing 347 more snaps overall. And why is that? Well because Bruce Arians just ran an offense in Arizona for 4 years that focused on getting the ball to Larry Fitzgerald out of the slot. So, Bruce Arians isn’t going to line up a tight end there – he’s going to have his tight end block while he has Chris Godwin run 404 plays (63.6%) from the slot. That’s why it was a feast for Godwin and a famine for Howard. And once OJ found himself in Bruce Arians’s doghouse of public humiliation where his Cardinals receivers often found themselves, it was pretty much lights out for him.
Now, people are going to point at Tom Brady being the quarterback and say that’s great for OJ Howard and I would tend to agree that it’s better – Tom Brady has a well-documented history of feeding the tight end. And Rob Gronkowski has a well-documented history of being able to be a great blocker while also being a great producer in the passing game which is the hopes we have for Howard. But the one caveat is this; Rob Gronkowski was always the best pass catching tight end on the team while they almost always had an additional second tight end who was primarily a blocker like a Dwayne Allen type. So, we’ll leave you with this question - which of these players profiles as the blocking tight end and which profiles as the pass catching tight end? Because both of these players are on the team for the foreseeable future.
Our Carolina Panthers. The darlings of our weekly snap count series. The 2019 Panthers ran one of the most consolidated personnel grouping we’ve seen in recent memory. Here are the snap percentages for the top four guys in games they weren’t ruled out due to injury.
Just beautiful. And that’s likely how they were able to beat the target distribution conundrum we’ve been harping on as the only team in the league in 2019 to have three guys that all had over 100 targets (CMC, Moore, Samuel). Under normal circumstances we would be very excited for third year tight end Ian Thomas to take the reins from Greg Olsen , who recently moved on to finish his career out in Seattle.
Alas, we won’t be getting that wonder scenario dreamed up in the hopeful realm of dynasty articles. First, Ron Rivera was fired along with offensive coordinator Norv Turner which signaled the end of what we like to refer to as “the good times”. There remained a glimmer of hope with Norv Turner’s son, Scott Turner, serving as interim offensive coordinator though that was of course dashed when Baylor head coach Matt Rhule was named the new head coach for 2020 and, along with him, came LSU offensive coordinator Joe Brady. They booted Cam Newton and brought in Teddy Bridgewater then, to make matters worse, they decided to add another pass catcher to the mix in Robby Anderson .
Conventional wisdom would say “okay now you have McCaffrey, Moore, Samuel, AND Anderson? How will there ever be targets for Ian Thomas ?” It’s honestly a good question. Let’s take a look.
It’s not easy finding reliable college football data for certain subjects but we were able to get the following snap count numbers from Pro Football Focus’s College Draft Guide (which is awesome, by the way). Here are the snap counts for Joe Brady’s LSU offense.
This doesn’t tell us all that much, but it does tell us that they favored using 11 personnel which is three wide sets with one tight end and one running back. Based on the numbers, Stephen Sullivan was mostly a blocking tight end which is a role likely destined for Chris Manhertz . So at least we can assume our tight end will be on the field which we can’t say for Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense that he brought from college to the NFL (they sent out personnel groupings that didn’t include a tight end on a league high 30% of the snaps so you can forget about Dan Arnold or Maxx Williams in your fantasy league). Thadeus Moss is an NFL caliber tight end and he was able to lasso 47 balls for 570 yards and 4 touchdowns though he of course had the fourth most catches in that loaded offense and was outshined by Jefferson, Chase, Edwards-Helaire, and Marshall.
The only other ray of hope in that situation is Teddy Bridgwater. In his last full season as QB in 2015, Kyle Rudolph got the second most targets behind only Stephon Diggs though he only finished with 495 yards and 5 touchdowns (the following year was when Rudolph had his best season with Sam Bradford ). In his limited starts this year, Jared Cook was the third target getter behind Kamara, and he did score two of Teddy’s nine touchdowns so there’s at least some history of tight end use.
In the end though, the reality for Ian Thomas is that this perfect world we had hoped for where he seamlessly replaces Olsen as a startable fantasy asset is unlikely to come to fruition. Given Christian McCaffrey and DJ Moore’s presence, it’s highly unlikely he breaks that 100-target threshold needed to be a top tight end and he may not be the 3rd or even 4th option with Curtis Samuel and Robby Anderson there. There is hope that Teddy leans on him and he has back end tight end 1, high tight end 2 potential but our recommendation for him would be to hold for now in dynasty and only add in the deepest of redraft or best ball formats.
Statistics for this article were provided by the author, Andrew Cooper, with help from ProFootballFocus.com, PlayerProfiler.com, ProFootballRefence.com, and AirYards.com. Follow Andrew on Twitter @CoopAFiasco.