Fantasy Football Tight End Preview: Draft Impact
Andrew Cooper takes a look at the tight end position and what impact the first round of the NFL Draft might have on some player's fantasy value for the 2020 season
Each NFL season leaves us with a lot of preconceived notions about fantasy players for the upcoming season. It’s easy to believe that what we just saw in 2019 is indicative of what we will see in 2020. But the reality is that only one team won the Super Bowl and every other team is going to be making changes or improvements to try and achieve the ultimate goal. The Chiefs just won with arguably the best offense in football and even they decided to take a pass catching running back in the first round in Clyde Edwards-Helaire so the truth is all 32 teams are constantly evolving and trying to improve. The point is what we saw last year is a mirage. The composition of most offenses will change before the season starts (for better or worse) and the bulk of that happens with free agency and the draft.
As we’ve harped on a number of times throughout this series (most recently in last week’s article but most comprehensively in the O.J. Howard section of last year’s tight end guide), there are both statistical and common sense reasons why you’d want your fantasy tight end to be a top two target in their offense. The short and sweet of it is that it’s fairly rare for a team to have three players with over 100 targets and nearly every top five tight end over the last five years has had over 100 targets. The two guys that didn’t, Jimmy Graham and Mark Andrews , had at least 95 targets and a bunch of touchdowns. For instance, Mark Andrews had 98 targets and scored 10 touchdowns last year and he was TE5 in PPR. So that target threshold is critical. I personally am not drafting a tight end that I don’t think can finish in the top half of fantasy tight ends so I’m looking to get at least one guy who has a shot at either leading his team in targets or being second. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to draft a tight end early, but it means you need to be smart and consider their path to success.
So, with that said, let’s take a look at the impact of yesterday’s NFL Draft first round on fantasy tight ends. By nature of adding players, most impacts will be negative but there are certainly some silver linings that we’ll touch on.
Noah Fant, Denver Broncos
This pick is going to have the biggest effect in our opinion. Last year as a rookie, Fant played in 16 games, starting 11. He had the second most targets on the team with 66 behind Courtland Sutton ’s 124. This offseason we had high hopes for Fant going into his second year based on his usage. He ran 369 routes as a rookie (which is more than George Kittle ), and he had an average depth of target of 7.8 yards which means he was running real routes and actually going down field as opposed to just being a screen or safety valve option. The Broncos were pretty obvious candidates to take a wideout but had the Broncos drafted a field stretcher at wide receiver who generally garner less targets than guys running short to intermediate routes (more on that later), then there might have been some hope that Fant could compete to be the number two target on the team. Alas, the Broncos took the guy touted as the best route runner in the draft as the second wideout off the board in Jerry Jeudy. Jeudy should make an immediate impact and, combined with the addition of pass catching back Melvin Gordon in free agency, Fant’s road to elite tight end targets just got a lot bumpier. That said, sometimes rookies can take time to acclimate so Fant still have a better shot at top two than say, Ian Thomas , who has virtually no chance to surpass Christian McCaffrey or D.J. Moore for top two in targets and has a tough battle against Curtis Samuel and Robby Anderson just for third.
Darren Waller , Las Vegas Raiders
Since we just briefly mentioned field stretching wide receivers versus technical route running flankers like Jeudy, now seems like a good time to discuss Darren Waller . And as I eluded to, I don’t think the addition of Henry Ruggs hurts Waller nearly as much as the addition of Jeudy hurts Fant. It certainly dings his value compared to them not adding a wide receiver at all but, when you look at that depth chart and remember the Antonio Brown debacle, the writing was on the wall that the Raiders were taking someone at some point. But, of all the top wide receiver options, Ruggs might have been the best one in terms of Waller’s value. And here’s why.
The nature of Ruggs playing style should naturally translate to less targets for him than a guy like Lamb, Jeudy, Reagor, etc. Ruggs profiles as more of a Marquise Brown /Tyreek Hill /Brandin Cooks type player taking the top off defenses with his blazing speed. Playing right along-side Jeudy at Alabama, Ruggs averaged 2.45 catches per game over his three years while Jeudy averaged 4.42. In their senior year alone, Jeudy got 108 targets to 55 for Ruggs. Look at the targets for an underneath guy like Julian Edelman compared to a deep aDot guy like Kenny Golladay and it’s clear that skill set can have an effect on target totals which is our big concern with tight ends. Last year Waller led the team in targets over Tyrell Williams and, not only is Ruggs easier to compete with target-wise, but he might actually open things up even more underneath for Waller given his speed. Compare that to Fant, who was a distant second to Sutton last year and now has to compete with both Jeudy and Melvin Gordon for underneath stuff and it’s clear why Waller kind of made out like a bandit here despite the Raiders taking the first wideout off the board.
Irv Smith Jr., Minnesota Vikings
After those first two discussions, you probably already know what we were going to say here. Going into the draft, Irv Smith had a chance to carve out the second pass catching role alongside Adam Theilen assuming Rudolph would continue the heavy blocking usage we saw last year. Rudolph blocked on 16.7% of his pass plays and lined up in the slot 41 times compared to 6.2% for Irv who lined up in the slot 124 times. There is still hope that Irv will play a ton of slot snaps but now, instead of going up against Bisi Johnson for targets, he’s going up against both Johnson and 22 overall pick Justin Jefferson. There is still a chance Smith shines while Jefferson gets acclimated but the goalposts for Irv to be a high end fantasy tight end likely just moved from Rudolph retiring to Rudolph retiring and Adam Theilen slowing down. Theilen turns 30 in August so time will tell.
Blake Jarwin , Dallas Cowboys
Blake Jarwin faced on uphill battle for targets already with Amari Cooper , Michael Gallup , and two proficient pass catching backs. The addition of CeeDee Lamb all but vaporizes his chances at 100 targets, barring multiple injuries. Not much more needs to be said.
George Kittle , San Francisco 49ers
Much like Rob Gronkowski , George Kittle has been a bit of an anomaly in the fantasy tight end world. He is actually used fairly heavily to block, blocking on 16.4% of his pass plays, which is higher than we saw for Gronkowski even towards the end of his tenure in New England. In fact, Gronk only blocked on more that 12% of pass snaps in a season one time during his career which was 2012 when he only played 11 games. Kittle’s usage along with the heavy run scheme of San Francisco is how a guy like Fant can run more routes than Kittle as we mentioned earlier. Looking back at this year, 17 tight ends ran more routes than Kittle’s 338, the same exact number as Kyle Rudolph . Rational thinking would tell you that Kittle blocking on one of every six pass plays is bad for business, and it would be for most tight ends, but his incredible efficiency combined with his top end speed at the position allows Kittle to mask that to a certain degree. Last year with only a rookie Deebo Samuel, the ghost of Dante Pettis , and a late addition Emmanuel Sanders to compete with, Kittle was pretty much locked in as the top target on that team. I think he has a good shot to be the top target on that team again in 2020 or at least top two. But be warned, with the addition of Brandon Aiyuk at 25th overall and a second year Deebo Samuel who just had 81 targets in 15 games, the tides are potentially a-changin’. The 49ers may eventually not need to rely so heavily on Kittle in the passing game in the near future and any reduction in his outrageous 28.2% target share (tops among tight ends) might mean he’s more in the TE4-6 range than top three.
Eagles Tight Ends
From a tight end perspective, hope was that the Eagles would stand pat at wide out. According to Sharp Football, last year they ran two or more tight ends out there on an absurd 58% of snaps, second only to the Minnesota Vikings in terms of two tight end sets. And that led to Zach Ertz leading the team in targets with Dallas Goedert getting the second most. A lot of that had to do with injuries to Alshon Jeffrey, DeSean Jackson , and Nelson Agholor but Ertz and Goedert are clearly capable players. I don’t think the addition of Jalen Reagor is going to have too much or an impact on Ertz given his solidified role, but I would not count on Dallas Goedert finishing as a top ten tight end like he did in fantasy last year. Unlike Ertz, Goedert was used to block on a number of pass plays, and the addition of more pass catchers doesn’t make us hopeful that trend will change. Goedert will remain a stash in dynasty leagues with the hopes he replaces Ertz long term but his stand-alone value for the time being is limited.
Teams That Drafted An Offensive Tackle
By nature of the way I analyze the position, we want tight ends who are part of the attack rather than part of the protection. If your tackles are playing poorly, a great blocking tight end can save you (see the 2016 Patriots with Martellus Bennett). So, any time a team is willing to invest a high-end asset in a tackle, to me, that’s good news for the tight end who will be free to run wild rather than staying in to help out. Here are the tight ends on teams who took tackles and a quick opinion.
Giants – In 2018, Evan Engram ran 47.3% of his snaps from the slot. In 2019, he only ran 22.1% of his snaps from the slot, lining up inline far more often. Hopefully the addition of Andrew Thomas at fourth overall helps to get him back out wide more often.
Browns – As I tweeted a couple months ago, Baker Mayfield has played 30 games in his career. In 21 of those games, Greg Robinson played over 95% of the snaps and Baker was sacked 30 times or 1.4 sacks per game. In the other nine games Robinson either got hurt or didn’t play at all. In those nine games, Baker got sacked 25 times or 2.8 sacks per game. Mayfield was sacked almost as many times in the nine games without Robinson as he was in the 21 games with him. Robinson recently got arrested with 157 pounds of marijuana at the border of Mexico and will almost certainly be going to jail. The addition of Jedrick Willis in the first round is good news for everyone.
Jets – As we wrote two weeks ago, Adam Gase has historically used the tight end to block on far too many pass plays, drastically lowering their ceiling. Perhaps the addition of Mekhi Becton at 1th1 overall will ease that burden for Chris Herndon but it’s up to Gase how he wants to run the scheme. The Jets not taking a wide receiver yet is also obviously good news from the tight end perspective.
Dolphins – If you are a Mike Gesicki or Preston Williams owner, you couldn’t have hoped for a better first round. You get a new quarterback, a new tackle, and they didn’t take a wide receiver at 30th overall either. All good things. Now you just need to hold your breath through pick 39, 56, and 70 for impact players. If they take a wide receiver at 136 or 141 in the fourth it’s not the end of the world.
Titans – Another call back, this time to our first article in the series on usage. Our biggest knock on Jonnu Smith is his usage in the blocking game, especially on pass plays. If you are a Jonnu Smith fan, the addition of Isaiah Wilson is a welcomed sight.
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.