Fantasy Football Tight End Preview - Ultimate Guide To Drafting Pt.2
Andrew Cooper launches his tight end series off with the intro & breakdown of the elite tight ends for 2020.
You just need one tight end. That’s the logic for most leagues. You’ve got one tight end spot and then a flex spot and, unless you are in a tight end premium league, you probably aren’t planning to start a tight end at the flex. If you are in a tight end premium league, you might start multiple tight ends and we have a separate guide for you here. If you are in some sort of two tight end format, then your league is mad weird. And, if you are in a normal league, then this is the guide for you.
The mistake a lot of people make in regards to the “needing one tight end” philosophy is that they think that means they don’t need to make tight end a priority. And a lot of that I blame on the way we treat the quarterback position. Waiting and drafting a quarterback late is a common strategy, popularized in large part by FanDuel/Numberfire’s JJ Zacharasian. His philosophy makes a lot of sense when you consider that half of the league’s 32 QBs played 90% or more of their team’s offensive snaps, giving them a relatively similar opportunity. And, if you look at the numbers below highlighting 10 and 12 team leagues, you’ll see the point drop off from a median starting fantasy QB to the last startable QB is not that significant.
A lot of people believe this same exact strategy translates to tight end. But it doesn’t. Sure, you only start one TE, just like QB, but let’s look at some of those same numbers we looked at for QB. First off, in 2019, only two tight ends, Travis Kelce and Darren Waller , played more than 90% of their team’s offensive snaps as opposed to 16 quarterbacks. The 16th tight end in snaps playing 65% of the team’s offensive snaps compared to 90% for the 16th QB. And here is the same chart as above showing the drop offs from tight end 6 to the corresponding points denoting the last startable guys.
A bit more drastic isn’t it? The popular strategy of punting on tight end then “drafting a couple later” could pan out if you get lucky and hit on one of course. But even then, what you’ve done in the meantime, is waste more draft picks than you needed to. And on top of that, you’ve clogged up your valuable bench spots with a bunch of rejects that are destined to be dropped while you try and find your starting TE.
What you really want to do is identify the tight ends who have top five tight end upside and present the most value at their ADP and then target them aggressively. In the first article of this series, we told you what to look for in tight ends with elite upside. If you have not read that, I implore you to read at least the introduction which details those metrics since they are important to today’s lesson and we don’t have time to rehash everything just because you showed up late to class with toilet paper stuck to your shoe. So check that out as it gives you some important info that will be referenced here as well as the three tight ends we consider to already be elite.
Now, even though we consider them to be elite, as we explained, we won’t be drafting those three tight ends unless they slide from their average draft position. And why is that? Because we know what we’re doing. Those players are currently priced appropriately which means they likely aren’t going to generate much value above and beyond their ADP. In this article we hit on the rounds where you can really create an advantage. Drafting the 3rd tight end and having him finish 3rd is fine and all but, in our opinion, drafting the 7th tight end and having him finish 4th is even better because you didn’t have to use a 3rd round pick to get him. It’s all about squeezing value out of the draft and, armed with this knowledge, you can use tight end to your advantage.
So why don’t we just go ahead and tell you exactly how to do that?
*For the sake of this series, we assume a 12 man, half point PPR league, using Fantasy Alarm Composite ADP data*
Evan Engram , New York Giants
This one will probably stir some controversy right off the bat. The response you get is the same every single time you bring Engram up – “He’s going to get hurt!”. Pretty cool that you are both a fortune teller and a doctor but we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s talk about what makes Evan Engram so good at the fooseballin’.
First off, Engram is an absolute physical specimen. At 6’3” 234 pounds he should not be running a 4.42 40 yard dash. To put that in perspective, Julio Jones is 6’3”, 220 and ran a 4.39. Engram’s speed scores are in the very top percentile for tight ends and just a hair behind Vernon Davis who had arguably the best combine of all time for a tight end. Here’s how Engram’s workout metrics stack up per PlayerProfiler.com.
For those unaware, the closer to 100 the better
For his whole three year career, he’s averaged 7.3 targets per game which is over a 115 target per season pace and that includes periods with Odell Beckham and Saquon Barkley on the team. In fact, here are the top players in PPR points per game since Engram came into the league, per ProFootballReference.com.
That’s a pretty good spot to be on a very good list of players. And yes we have recently clicked on every one of them which is why they show up purple. Just think – Engram was getting those targets and putting up those points in seasons where he battled multiple injuries, leaving games early and acting as a decay in others. The ceiling is likely higher than what we’ve seen as he’s only 25 years old which is typically when tight ends enter their prime. Plus, I know that these articles focus on analytics rather than the eye test but how can you not get excited when you see plays like this?
Imagine picking Jared Cook or Tyler Higbee over this 25 year old WR that lines up at tight end sometimes?— Andrew Cooper (@CoopAFiasco) May 28, 2020
Cuz that’s somehow happening in some leagues. pic.twitter.com/hYqqvGFPtQ
As we mentioned earlier, the elephant in the room is the injury history. He’s yet to finish a season healthy and it is seemingly getting worse from year to year. His most recent injury, a Lisfranc fracture in his foot, is a notoriously fickle injury to get over. The 49ers Trent Taylor suffered one last year and missed the entire season due to various setbacks (and Deebo Samuel just suffered the same injury with a timeline likely to have him miss half the season). Engram had surgery during last season and he didn’t get the boot off him until late April/early May which means a lot of rehab and conditioning still to be done over a couple months. Reports are that he’s healthy for camp but you can’t help but be nervous drafting a guy who has had injuries to his ribs, head, ankle, knee, hamstring, MCL, and now foot. At this point his entire body is an injury risk.
On top of that the two additional concerns are A. Golden Tate and B. the Giants in general. Though his targets didn’t necessarily decline, getting 11 targets in Tate’s first game back from a steroid suspension, Engram’s usage in the slot did a little going from almost 18 slot snaps per game in the first three games to under 14 slot snaps per game in his final three games. Fourteen slot snaps per game is still good slot usage for a tight end but the more the merrier. The other issue is that the Giants are projected to win 6.5 games – losing teams throw a lot but that 6 win range means they could be outright bad which is obviously not great for scoring. You want a good offense with a bad defense – not just a straight up bad team which the Giants are currently in the bottom five in terms of Vegas win totals.
We said last article that we’d consider any of the “big three” elite tight ends if they slipped below their ADP and were available for a good price. Evan Engram is the first guy we are actively targeting at or above ADP. Fantasy Alarm composite ADP data pulls in the average draft position from some of the sharpest sites such as Bestball10s, FFPC, NFFC, RTSports, and Yahoo (maybe not as sharp, but popular). Currently Engram is going off the board as the seventh tight end at pick ~83 or round seven. Based on my own experience doing quite a few competitive drafts and mocks, tight end start with some combo of Kelce, Kittle, and Andrews in the first few rounds. At some point within rounds four of five, someone takes Zach Ertz (sometimes even before Andrews). Right after Ertz goes is when I start preparing myself to take Evan Engram , ideally getting him in round six or seven near his ADP but I’m willing to reach as high as the fourth or fifth depending on format and the tendencies of my league mates. There are only so many tight ends that have the upside of tight end one overall and Evan Engram might be the most athletic pass catcher of all of them. If you are concerned about injuries, stash Kaden Smith or at least add him to your watch list as Smith put up some decent starts in Engram’s absence last year, including a top five TE finish in championship week.
Zach Ertz , Philadelphia Eagles
Zach Ertz is the “Old Faithful” of tight ends. And rightfully so, considering you’ve been able to count on him to finish top six among tight ends for four straight years. Though he can get a little banged up from time to time, he’s never missed more than two games in all seven of his seasons which is a feat in itself. And he’s gotten over 100 targets for five straight years with an average of 123.8 per season.
We said right in our first article that the most important thing for a tight end is being a top two target on their team, and if possible, the number one target. The last five straight years he’s top two on the team in targets including being the top target getter the last two years in a row. He’s about as solid as they come.
You would think with all of that praise we might have him higher on our list. The big issue with Ertz for us is not that he’s “slowing down” in the sense that he’s getting older – it’s that he’s always been pretty slow. He ran a 4.76 at the combine which is 55th percentile at a position where half of them are expected to just block. And it’s hard to believe that he’s now faster than that as he turns 30. As we talked about in the first article, speed leads to both big plays and higher yards after the catch and that efficiency is a big key to being super elite. Not just for the extra yards but the extra touchdowns that come with “getting loose”. Let’s look at some examples of tight ends showing their receptions, YAC, YAC per reception, and their longest play for 2019.
Between Engram, Kittle, and Waller, none of them ran a 40 slower than 4.52. Anything 4.5 or below is absolutely screaming for a tight end. Greg Olsen may have been fast at one point but he and Witten are certainly not trail blazers at this juncture. And as you can see, neither is Ertz. We looked it up using ProFootballReferences’s play finder and, in his entire career, he only have five plays over 40 yards and they all came in 2015, 2016, 2017. His longest play in the last two years has been 34 yards. Compare that to George Kittle who’s only been in the league three years and has nine plays of 40 yards or greater including eight over the last two seasons. We obsess over targets because targets are the lifeblood of fantasy football but there is something to be said about the ability to take it to the house at any moment and Ertz has never really had that.
In 2018 he led all tight ends with 156 targets and 116 catches but was still not the top tight end and was only the third tight end in yards despite all those looks. Last year Ertz led the team with 135 targets which was only one less than Kelce who led the league with 136. Yet Ertz still finished as tight end five in half point PPR. Given the disastrous year the Eagles had with injuries at wide receiver, I find it hard to believe that Ertz can get enough targets to truly have the elite ceiling of top overall tight end that other guys have.
We have Ertz at five here which still puts “Old Faithful” on our Mount Rushmore of tight ends given his sheer consistency. Top five is nothing to scoff at. But given where he’s going in drafts at 46 overall, which is towards the end of the fourth round, we only recommend that you draft him if he slides beyond his ADP because his ADP prices him pretty well – he’s the fourth tight end and he’ll probably finish somewhere between three and seven. If you can get him in the late fifth, sixth, or seventh then go for it but, for us, there are better value propositions out there based on ADP. We need to look at the medium floor, high ceiling guys before we take Ertz, a medium floor, medium/high ceiling guy. As I mentioned in the Engram write up, this year I’m essentially using Ertz as the litmus test for when I grab my tight end in the sense that, once someone pulls the trigger on Ertz, that’s when I gear up to take Engram or the next two guys I’m going to talk about.
Darren Waller , Oakland Raiders
First and foremost, Darren Waller is a great story. If you like talking about your fantasy players to anyone who will listen, Waller is a great pick. He’s an increasingly rare example of a guy who overcame serious substance abuse issues. And not just alcohol or marijuana, but things like opiates, Xanax, and cocaine. In college and with the Baltimore Ravens he was suspended multiple times over drugs including the entire 2017 season. Now he’s signed a multi-year deal with the Raiders at age 27 and looks to be a shining example for people out there going through similar struggles.
But enough about that - let’s talk ball. Like Evan Engram , Darren Waller ’s success can be attributed to one main reason – he’s an athletic freakazoid. Here are the same PlayerProfiler.com metrics we shared for Engram.
Now, that combine was run when he was fresh out of Georgia Tech as a 22 year old wide receiver that weighed 238 pounds and he’s now a nearly 28 year old tight end that weighs 255 pounds so he may not be 4.46 fast. But there is no question he’s still one of the fastest tight ends in the league. He showed that off last year with the second highest YAC total among tight ends and the second highest yards per target as well as a 75 yard touchdown.
Last off-season the Raiders signed a mega-target hog in Antonio Brown . Mr. Brown (or Mr. Big Chest as he asked to be called) then happened to flash-freeze his feet and call the general manager a cracker over a minor hat dispute, leading to his dismissal from the team. That created a target void and out of it arose Darren Waller who led the team in targets last year and looks to be at least top two this year if things go according to plan.
Even with all of that info, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Waller’s profile as a tight end. There’s really two major concerns for us.
Slot Snaps – Slot snaps are crucial for most pass catching tight ends, especially speedy ones like Waller, because it not only gets you out in space but it’s one less pass catcher on the field to compete with many times. If you want your guy getting a high target share, would you rather have two WRs out there with him in the slot and another blocking TE in the game or three WRs with him at TE, potentially being asked to block? That’s a rhetorical question. Not every tight end will play 64% of their snaps out of the slot like Mark Andrews , but even slower guys like Ertz and Hooper ran ~45% of their routes out of the slot last year. Not only was Waller’s 34% number not ideal last year, but he faces even stiffer competition at the slot this year.
In 2018 out of the slot the Raiders basically had Waller, Hunter Renfrow, and Zay Jones as options. It was scary enough when they added Nelson Agholor as a free agent and Lynn Bowden in the draft, but now there are reports that the very first wide receiver taken in the 2020 draft, Henry Ruggs, will start in the slot. That’s not ideal for Waller who already plays less slot than we want and blocks on a little too many pass plays than we’d like (11.9%).
Red Zone Volume – The second issue for us is volume in general but specifically red zone volume. Waller only scoring three touchdowns is glaring amongst the top tight ends and it leads back to red zone targets. Waller was 2nd among tight ends in receptions but he was tied for 11th in red zone targets with 7 catches on 11 targets. The big dogs like Kelce (22), Ertz (20), Kittle (19), and Andrews (19) are being peppered with red zone looks so 11 isn’t really cutting it. After your tight end has a good year, you want the team to keep the receiving corps consistent like the Chiefs have – they didn’t add much in terms of target threats because they are happy with the offense. The Raiders on the other hand clearly felt they could do better. Not only did they add Ruggs, Agholor, and Bowden who we talked about but the Raiders also added veteran tight end Jason Witten and, even more threatening in the red zone, the 6’3” 212 wideout Bryan Edwards (who reportedly has been impressing in camp).
The one common denominator every #Raiders beat writer is talking about...— Raiders Beat (@RaidersBeat) August 16, 2020
This year, Darren Waller fits in for us as a fall back plan. Essentially the top four tight ends (Kelce, Kittle, Andrews, and Ertz) are pretty consistently the top four tight ends off the board. After they go, we are targeting Evan Engram and, given his ADP of 83 which is somewhere in the 7th round, he’s usually pretty easy to snag. It’s more likely that Ertz goes and then someone takes Waller at his ADP of 59 before you can get him than Engram. But, if Ertz goes and Engram goes right after, we have no problem taking Waller at his ADP in the 5th or 6th round since he’s a good bet to be solid once again. What you need to avoid is being caught with your pants down and not getting a solid guy with top five upside. Which brings us to the last of our “must target” tight ends in the event that the rug completely gets pulled out and you don’t get any of the six guys we’ve mentioned so far..
Mike Gesicki , Miami Dolphins
First, just to keep things short since we have a lot to say. Here are Gesicki’s workout metrics from Player Profiler just as we laid out for Engram and Waller.
Remember we mentioned how good Vernon Davis ’s combine was? Note the “best comparable player”. Enough said.
Next, here’s some info that was blasted out into the fantasy ether in an attempt to disparage potential Mike Gesicki drafters.
Since 2000, Chan Gailey has coached eight teams. Here are his team TE targets ranking for each year:— Mike Tagliere (@MikeTagliereNFL) June 1, 2020
2008: 1st (with Tony Gonzalez)
2020 with Dolphins: ?
The tight ends being referenced in that tweet are essentially the likes of Jeff Cumberland, Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, Brandon Bostick and Scott Chandler (bad fantasy tight ends) as well as Tony Gonzelez (arguably the greatest tight end of all time). Before we decide who to compare Gesicki to, let’s first look at the usage for the tight ends on the Dolphins last year, courtesy of info from Pro Football Focus.
Hmm that’s weird? It seems like Durham Smythe played literally twice as many in-line snaps as Gesicki at the position we would typically consider “tight end”? While Gesicki played 461 snaps in the slot and 78 split wide, a position we historically refer to as “wide receiver”? Since he played 77% of his snaps at WR and 65% of his snaps at the slot, let’s take a look at some guys who played “big slot” in Chan Gailey’s scheme in the past.
In 2015, Decker was 4th in the league in slot routes run and he had over 1,000 yards and 12 TDs. In the following year he was hurt but we saw the 6’2” 225 pound Quincy Enunwa flash his only stint of relevance playing “big slot” for Gailey. In 2011, David Nelson led the league in slot routes run and had 97 total targets. In 2008, Tony Gonzalez was 2nd in the league in slot routes run, had over 1,000 yards and 10 TDs, and was the fantasy TE1 by 50 points in half point PPR. Looks like “big slot” is the place to be for Gailey.
Hey look, there’s Tony Gonzalez! Hi Tony!
Alright so now we know that, in all likelihood, Durham Smythe and/or Adam Shaheen will be playing the Jeff Cumberland role at “in-line” tight end in Gailey’s offense and Gesicki has a good shot at being the slot guy. So what other kinds of competition will he have for that coveted slot role? Here are last year’s slot snap leaders.
If you haven’t heard, the 2nd and 3rd guys on that list, Albert Wilson and Allen Hurns , both opted out of the season. That leaves Mike Gesicki alone at the top of the slot heap. His 374 slot routes last year not only led the Dolphins but it was 11th in the whole league – one less route than Cooper Kupp . Now he enters an offense that features a big slot heavily with multiple guys in the past that were 6’3” to 6’5” finishing in the top five at slot routes run.
What about Preston Williams you might say? Well, Preston Williams only played 15 snaps from the slot so not really a threat there. And he’s also an undrafted free agent who only started and received a high volume of targets because they traded away Kenny Stills and didn’t draft or sign any new wide receivers. Plus he was largely inefficient with those targets, never having more than 82 yards in a game. If you take the full sample size of his games including preseason, he had a catch rate down near 50% and he had the fourth highest drop percentage in the league. Two of his three touchdowns were on completely blown coverage, he dropped just as many touchdown passes as he caught (notably, in the Patriots and Cowboys games), and he fumbled the Bills game away. So he was basically a worse version of fellow UDFA Robert Foster except at least in his half a season starting with the Bills Robert Foster had three 100 yard games (before being vaporized in the rebuild). Oh and then Williams tore his ACL for the second time.
As we just laid out, Gesicki has the physical skill set and the opportunity will be there for him this year. But what hasn’t been there so far, is the production. Seeing that Gesicki had 51 catches on 89 targets (second most on the team) for 570 yards and five touchdowns seems promising until you dig a little deeper.
First off, as hard as we just bashed Preston Williams, in the first 8 games before his injury Williams had 59 targets to only 27 for Gesicki. Sure Williams only caught 54.2% of his while Gesicki was catching 77.8% of his but, even if you want to say that DeVante Parker faced the tougher assignments so QBs had to look elsewhere, they were clearly looking to Williams before Gesicki. Williams and Parker also got 24 and 13 red zone targets during this period compared to a measly three for Gesicki. Which is alarming.
Once Williams got hurt, the targets ramped up for Gesicki, especially the red zone ones where he received 15 over the final eight games. But his pristine catch rate plummeted down from 77% to 56.6%. Gesicki’s season long catch rate of 63.7% is still better than what Preston Williams was giving you but, if you take all the tight ends that played at least 25% of the snaps, ~64% is not even within the top 50 tight ends which is a problem.
Compound all that with both the fact that the Dolphins are slated by Vegas to win 6 games and the fact that there very well could be a QB change by fantasy playoff time, and Gesicki certainly isn’t without his flaws. The floor isn’t nearly as safe as some of these other guys.
We are all aboard the Mike Gesicki train this year. The 2019 offense that used him improperly which led to his struggles is gone. Offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea didn’t even make it one full year, being fired mid-season. Gesicki has all the talent in the world and now he’s getting the opportunity to be a feature piece of the offense so he’s by far our favorite value pick in terms of a guy being drafted outside the top 10-12 who could potentially finish top 6 at the position.
Right now his ADP is 119.17 which is somewhere in the 10th round so he’s easily affordable. In most leagues what I’m doing is drafting Andrews if he slides, getting Engram or Waller at or around their ADP, or, if I don’t get any of them, I reach for Gesicki in the 8th or 9th. Sometimes I’ll even grab Gesicki as my second tight end even if I already have a TE because I think he could outperform a lot of RBs and WRs going in that range. Just be wary that Gesicki has the same week 11 bye week as Evan Engram so you’ll need another guy to slot in at that point if you stack those two. Though, if we are right in our predictions, your team might be doing so well by that point that one week doesn’t even matter.
Statistics for this article were provided by the author, Andrew Cooper, with help from ProFootballFocus.com, PlayerProfiler.com, ProFootballRefence.com, AirYards.com, NFLSavant.com, FantasyData.com, and SharpFootballStats.com. Follow Coop on Twitter @CoopAFiasco – like everyone at Fantasy Alarm vows to do, he answers every question and not just about tight ends.
Are you a believer in the Mike Gesicki hype?? Check out where he ranks in the official 2020 Fantasy Alarm NFL Draft Guide Pre-Season Player Rankings for Standard, PPR, Super Flex and Top 200 Overall!
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