Fantasy Football Tight End Preview: Hayden Hurst is "Just OK"
Andrew Cooper breaks down the value of Hayden Hurst following his trade to the Falcons to replace Austin Hooper.
At Fantasy Alarm one of our core principals is that we “answer every question”. On any given autumn Sunday morning, take a peek at the Fantasy Alarm Twitter, Howard Bender’s personal account @RotoBuzzGuy, or managing editor Jon Impemba’s Twitter and you can see first-hand the work those guys put in making sure every single question gets a response. Heck, even I was answering questions about a Dynasty Superflex PPR slow draft on my account this morning and it’s April for god’s sake. But we take pride in providing you the best advice possible to help you win your league so no fantasy question to any of us is going to be neglected.
Which brings me to this week’s article in the offseason tight end series. Along with discussing these articles here and on Twitter, I have been sharing them with the Fantasy Football subreddit on Reddit.com to get some feedback and answer some questions. Besides being home of the most outrageous meme-driven, semi-serious hype trains in the fantasy community (who could forget Andre “Red Jesus” Ellington, Christine “CMike” Michael, and Josh “Flash” Gordon), it’s actually a pretty well informed and enthusiastic group that I’ve been proud to be a part of for almost 10 years now. They are a stubborn bunch so good luck going against the grain of the “hivemind”, but rational, statistic-based thought and common sense typically wins the day over there which cannot be said for every pocket of the fantasy sports world.
So far we are two articles into the series and the Reddit discussions (as well as links to the articles themselves if you’ve yet to read them) can be found here on Tyler Higbee /Jonnu Smith /Texans TEs and here on Mike Gesicki /Chris Herndon /OJ Howard/Ian Thomas ). Throughout the course of those discussions in the comment sections, a couple of the same names have been coming up over and over again as tight ends that the people want analyzed. Well, today, we are going to do what we pride ourselves on here at Fantasy Alarm and start answering some of those questions. And we will start with the tight end that has generated far and away the most interested in those talks.
Hayden Hurst – Atlanta Falcons
None of those first two articles in the series so far have been about the Falcons or Hayden Hurst whatsoever. Yet, besides all the comments telling me that I am either an idiot or a genius, these are the comments I am getting.
(The people demand Hurst – who are we to deny them?)
First, a quick background on Hurst for those who might not know, starting from where we are now. He was recently traded from the Baltimore Ravens to the Atlanta Falcons. Prior to that, he was picked 25 overall out of South Carolina by the Ravens in the 2018 draft. Some might not know this but, before playing college football for the Gamecocks, he was actually drafted as a pitcher by the Pittsburgh Pirates right out of high school and spent a couple years in their system before giving up his baseball career with a case of the “yips”. As someone who spent nearly a month behind the plate one summer not being able to throw the ball back to the pitcher without it either rolling to his feet or soaring into the outfield, I can assure you that the yips are real. Just ask Jon Lester.
Having a first round pick pedigree is obviously good but what’s more important to me right now is that the Falcons were willing to give up a second (pick 55) and a fifth (pick 157) for Hurst and a fourth (pick 143) which, for all intents and purposes, is basically trading a second round pick for him. The fact that he’s retained that much value tells us that the Falcons still covet him and, considering that first and second round picks are almost always expected to contribute right away, we can expect him to have first crack at that starting tight end role. Sorry, Jaeden Graham .
When the Ravens took both Andrews and Hurst, the prevailing thought was that one would be used to primarily block while the other would be more of a pass catcher but a surprising positive in this narrative is that that was not the case. They essentially used Nick Boyle as the full time blocking tight end with Andrews and Hurst each playing 457 snaps last year. Here is how that shook out.
Hurst was clearly deployed on more run plays and lined up less in the slot, but his route participation is appealing in that he clearly was considered part of the attack rather than part of the protection, unlike Boyle. If you look at some of this other usage metrics, like Hurst’s 8.5 yard aDOT and 1.69 yards per route run, his pass game usage was pretty good in terms of what they were asking him to do (to put it in perspective, Zach Ertz was nearly identical with an 8.5 yard aDot and a 1.69 yards per route run while Ertz (3.6%) actually pass blocked at a slightly higher rate). Hurst also had the lowest drop rate on the team at TE in 2019 and he did not drop a single ball in 2018 so that was not an issue. The metrics he did poorly in were mostly opportunity based and what we would like to tell ourselves is that, if Mark Andrews were not there, he may have had a more successful fantasy career with the Ravens. He simply fell victim to being behind a tremendous talent.
And that has probably also one of his biggest flaws that there is no getting around – Hurst was drafted in the first and Mark Andrews was drafted in the third of the same draft and Andrews beat Hurst out for the job. Not by just a little either – to the point Hurst was clearly expendable. The Falcons may have had a high grade on him on draft day and were still interested based on the compensation, but it is hard not to put some weight on losing that competition. Perhaps the Ravens just happened to have a great tight end in Andrews and a very good one in Hurst but, if he was that good, they probably would have found a way to keep him and deploy both. Not to mention, Hurst clearly was not able to contribute the way Andrews did despite getting ample opportunity. I mean, they played the exact same number of snaps, but Andrews had a 23% target share and Hurst only earned a 9% share. The scariest part is that the clunker of the group, Nick Boyle , actually had a 10% target share. Lamar Jackson did not like throwing it to Hayden Hurst .
Further highlighting the issue is that Baltimore was severely lacking in other target hogs. Mark Andrews was the top target with 98 and the next three were Hollywood Brown (71), Willie Snead (46), and Nick Boyle (43). Hurst had 39. The running back competes with the tight end for short targets at times, but Mark Ingram only had 29 targets, so he wasn’t affecting it much either. The Falcons have Julio who had 157 targets in 15 games, Ridley who had 93 targets in 13 games, Sanu/Russell Gage combined for 116 targets as the third WR, and Devonta Freeman has 70 targets in 14 games. Julio, Ridley, and Gage are still there, and Todd Gurley replaces Freeman so targets could be tough to come by there – especially since it will be Hurst’s first year in this offense and he needs to earn Matt Ryan ’s trust. Considering that, on the Eagles, Ertz was first in targets and Goedert was second, the Ravens might have actually been an easier situation than the Falcons for Hurst to be a top 2 target-getter had he been able to capitalize. But he did not.
The success of Hayden Hurst is likely going to come down to the target competition between him and Calvin Ridley . As we have mentioned time and time again when talking about tight ends (or any pass catcher really), it is incredibly rare for a team to have three guys all with over 100 targets. It is happened 4 times in 5 years or roughly 2.5% of the time. And every top 5 tight end has had at least 95 targets over that span and all but three had 100+ (for instance, it took Mark Andrews 98 targets and 10 TDs to be tight end 5 and he’s an EXCEPTION to the 100+ target rule of thumb). And when it comes to the teams that actually are exceptions to the “three guys with 100+” trend, it is not nearly as predictable as you would think. If I asked which teams had three guys all with over 100 targets in the last five years, you’d probably guess something like the 2019 Rams with Brandin Cooks , Robert Woods , and Cooper Kupp or the 2016 Packers with Jordy Nelson , Davante Adams , and Randall Cobb . No, here are the teams over the last 5 years with three guys all having more than 100 targets.
So, it is not only rare but also fairly unpredictable. You might say “well, if not for injuries then you might have more teams on that list”. But on the flip side, if not for the injury to Odell, Shepard probably does not get 100 targets and that team is not on the list. When you look at it, it is less about that talent and more about the team just throwing a ton (every team except the Giants was either #1 or #2 in pass attempts, the Giants were #10).
So, you might say “well the Falcons lead the league in pass attempts last year. So why can’t Hurst be the third guy after Julio and Ridley and still get 90 to 100 targets and be good?” (Sorry to keep putting words in your mouth but I am just trying to predict what the Reddit comments will be if anyone reads this). The problem with Hurst being the third guy even on a prolific passing team is that the third guy on the list in almost every case also was not exactly fantasy relevant. Here is how the third guy on the totem pole fared in half point PPR
2019 Curtis Samuel : WR36, Flex 71
2018 Sterling Shepard : WR30, Flex 58
2016 Willie Snead WR31, Flex 58
2016 Steve Smith WR39, Flex 67
Not good. Also, go back through the tight ends for the last five years. How many of the top 5 tight ends were the third target on their team? None? Okay. That is why we continuously harp on the importance of being the second target on your respective team. If you are going to draft a guy as a top 10 tight end off the board, you do not want a guy whose upside is back end TE1.
All that said, there is some light at the end of the tunnel Before injuries, the Falcons were on a pace which was close to hitting that “three guys over 100” mark. And through nine games, Hooper actually out targeted Ridley 65 to 55 (at that pace Hoop would have had 115 and Ridley would have had 97 with Julio well over 100 so about as close as you can get). And Hooper getting so many looks was all thanks to Matt Ryan and his own usage a tight end. Matt Ryan will be there, and you can see below that Hooper had a nice low pass block percentage, good route participation, lots of slot snaps etc.
Hooper was just made the highest paid tight end in the game and Hurst was just jettisoned by the team that drafted him for less than they paid to draft him so you probably aren’t going to get a carbon copy of Hooper with Hurst. He is got a playbook to learn as well and will have limited time on the field to practice with Matthew Ice because of the pandemic. But he should hopefully see similar deployment. So, in our opinion, he will at least have the opportunity to go toe to toe with Ridley in a competition for targets. And, if either Julio or Ridley gets hurts, he is a pretty likely recipient some extra work.
It is still outrageously early to be talking about football, so it is mostly just dynasty and best ball drafts right now. In dynasty, Hurst is likely owned, and he is a decent guy to have but he is also not terribly young because of the late start after the failed baseball attempt. You might be surprised to learn he turns 27 in August, so he is older than Kittle, Engram, Henry, Hooper, etc. If I had to put a value on him, I would say late 2020 2nd round pick or any 2021 second or third.
In current rankings and best ball leagues we are seeing he has going as early as 7 or 8 off the board which, in our opinion, is too early. Assuming we all believe Julio will lead that team in targets, you need to ask yourself this question – will Hayden Hurst get more targets than Calvin Ridley . The real answer is maybe but, if I were to bet on it, I had bet on Ridley all day. And if you think Julio and Ridley get more targets than Hurst, that means Hurst is mathematically unlikely to get over 100 targets which mathematically makes him unlikely to be a top five tight end in fantasy.
In best ball leagues being done now, before the draft, I’m taking anyone who has a clear path to being a top two target on their team which includes in no particular order Evan Engram , Noah Fant, Travis Kelce , Darren Waller , Zach Ertz , George Kittle , and Mark Andrews . I also believe that Hunter Henry vs. Mike Williams , Jared Cook vs. Emmanuel Sanders , and TJ Hockenson vs. Marvin Jones are better bets than Hurst vs. Ridley on a brand new team with a brand new QB meaning that, at this very moment, Hurst is currently outside of my top 10. We will see what happens in the draft in terms of WR needy teams like the Broncos or Raiders since that could move those rankings around but, as of now, those guys are pretty locked in at a top two spot on those teams. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t like Hurst but, seeing him in some rankings at 7 or 8 has us concerned that he may actually be overdrafted come August. If you can get him for a bargain after those guys listed then by all means go for it but I would not personally wait then take just Hayden Hurst and say “whelp, I’m all set at tight end”.
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.