Does the tight end position annoy you to no end in fantasy football? Me too. Yet I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve spent years trying to figure it out. Attempting to decipher what makes elite tight ends tick. Trying to identify tight end sleepers. Even changing the way that we look at tight end fantasy football rankings. And, at the end of the day, I know that there will never be some definitive end to the process as the league is constantly shifting. New fantasy football formats are invented every year. And guess what? I’m okay with that. So why don’t you pull up a chair as I take a page from this never-ending story and share with you a bit of what I’ve learned about tight ends.
The goal here is pretty simple, ladies and Gettlemans. It’s the same goal every year. Most of us play in 10 to 12-man leagues. That means that, if we don’t have a top 5-6 tight end, our starting tight end is below average. That’s math. Now, not every top five tight end is a difference maker. Sometimes there are only a couple of guys that really move the needle. And in some years there might be more than five or six. But, at the very least, if your tight end is in the top five, then you know the position isn’t holding you back compared to your peers. All your teachers back in school were wrong. You ARE above average.
When you actually sit down and look at the tight ends after the top few, it becomes crystal clear as to why we want to gun for upside. And that’s because there isn’t a huge difference between the mid to back-end TE1s anyway. In full PPR in 2022, the the difference between the TE7 and TE12 was 7 points. In 2021 the difference between TE8 and TE11 was quite literally less than a point.
It’s really not much better from the mid/backend TE1s to the front-end TE2s either. The difference between TE7 and TE15 was less than 13.4 points. As I’m about to explain, it’s not hard to pinpoint the guys that are likely to be backend starting tight ends that will finish as backend starting TEs. But this isn’t some Ranking Accuracy Challenge we are doing here. Who cares about correctly picking the TE9 that finishes TE9? We care about winning leagues. We care about upside. Drafting those middle of the pack dudes and starting them in your fantasy lineup all year long is a one-way express ticket to third place. So we’re going to throw the floor out the window here and worry only about the ceiling. We are on the hunt for top five upside. So buckle up homies.
The Two Paths
In full PPR there are two paths to finishing top five at tight end. That’s it. You either get 90+ targets. Or you get 10+ touchdowns. How do I know that? Well, every top five PPR tight end going back to Randy McMichael in 2003 has had either 90+ targets, 10+ touchdowns, or both. How’s that for a sample size? In fact, the rule essentially rings true for half PPR as well because there’s only been one exception: 2020 Mark Andrews who finished as TE5 with 88 targets and seven touchdowns. While missing two games with COVID. As much as we’d like to just throw out that weird season where a ton of guys missed time sporadically, it’s technically an outlier despite the near certainty Andrews would have gotten those two targets had he not gotten sick. Either way, we’ll focus on PPR for this article where the stat has no outliers but the reality here is, for all formats, you really want to just focus on double digit touchdowns or 90+ targets. That’s what we are looking for.
So, let’s get back to Mr. McMichael in 2003. That gives us a sample size of 95 tight ends that finished top five. Here is the distribution of how they got there.
|Under 10 TDs||Over 10 TDs|
Under 90 Targets
Over 90 Targets
That’s right my little fantasy football cherubs. Of those tight ends, over the last 19 years, only six of them got there by having double-digit touchdowns with less than 90 targets. Last year the banged up George Kittle pulled it off. In the history of this great league, there have only been ten tight ends to have double-digit touchdowns in multiple seasons. Here are those mad lads.
That’s all of them. How many leagues did you have Wesley Walls in? During our 19-year modern sample size, the six guys to finish top five with double digit TDs on less than 90 targets are broken down as follows: George Kittle, Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski, and Vernon Davis, guys who were having elite seasons but got injured before they surpassed 90 targets. Included in that we talking about Gronk having 11 TDs in 11 games before getting hurt (2012) and Gates having 10 TDs in 10 games before getting hurt (2010). With full seasons they easily cover the target threshold. After those guys you have Marcedes Lewis in 2010 with 10 TDs and 89 targets to which I say - close enough. But science demands we discuss it because it’s technically outside our parameters.
The true lone exception after that would be Robert Tonyan (in our favorite COVID season in 2020). He miraculously had 11 TDs on only 59 targets - anchored by a three-touchdown game vs. the Falcons in which Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, and three of the Falcons’ safeties missed the game. Anyone who had Tonyan in fantasy that year enjoyed his TD-dependency right up until fantasy championship week when he caught one pass and it wasn’t a touchdown, thus pulling your pants right down in front of your whole league.
I could go on all day about how Tonyan is an absurd outlier and how greatly that annoys me but I think I got my point across. He’s essentially the one dude out of 90 that wasn’t even close to the 90 target threshold we want. So we are going to forget about his blasphemous season and focus on targets as that’s the most predictable path to high-end upside. Red zone prowess is an ancillary piece that certainly helps (and we will get to that) but first we need to talk about what’s really important.
What’s Really Important
There are a lot of ingredients to something like chicken noodle soup. But some ingredients are more important than others. Like, for instance, the chicken. Or the noodles. Of course onion and salt and whatnot enhance the soup but you have to start with the key ingredients or you aren’t making chicken noodle soup. That's just salty onion water. Here are the two most predictable ingredients to elite tight end soup.
Top Two Target
This is the most simple concept yet it is ROUTINELY ignored by fantasy gamers year after year. It is incredibly rare for a team to have three players all get 100+ targets. How rare? According to Pro Football Focus, no team did it in 2021. Even with an extra game. In 2022 the Vikings technically did it but one of the players included was TJ Hockenson who they traded for mid season. And, in the games where Hock was there, Adam Thielen was not on a 100 target pace. These are the teams over the last six years that had three guys all get 100+ targets, per PFF (no team did it in 2017).
Not always the teams you expect is it? I mean, no team did it in 2021 or 2017. The 2018 Giants only got there because Odell was RAKING in targets and then got hurt, allowing targets to trickle down to Sterling Shepard to end the season. And three of the teams got there because they had a running back in that mix (notice how only one of them included a tight end?). Having five teams do it over the last five years is about a 3% chance that it happens. If you’re not a gambler, ask your Uncle Jimmy if betting on a single number is smart in Roulette. That’s about the odds we are dealing with here.
When we look at the tight ends that finish top five without being a top two target on their team, the results are equally scarce. Evan Engram managed to pull it off last year, thriving in games where Zay Jones got vaporized by corners like Sauce Gardner and Jeff Okudah and disappearing in others. Then you have our best, good friend, 2020 Robert Tonyan. Before that, the most recent is Martellus Bennett in 2014. So three in recent history. Not a good bet. If the team has two pass catchers that are clearly in line for more targets than the tight end, the ceiling is capped. This tweet further illustrates why.
The reality is that the vast majority of difference-making tight ends actually LEAD their team in targets. Meanwhile, there are plenty of tight ends who finish second on their team in targets and don’t finish top five, like Noah Fant every year on the Broncos. In fact there are guys who have led their team in targets and not been particularly relevant in fantasy, like Cole Kmet and Tyler Higbee last year. But the bottom line is that, when it comes to the top dogs, virtually all of them are top two targets in their offense. We want focal points. Now, for the second ingredient.
Perhaps not what you expected to be the next big key? Or perhaps you follow me Twitter so you already knew. Either way, this is quietly an incredibly predictive stat that can often follow guys from team to team. It tells you what kind of guy you are dealing with. And it makes a lot of sense when you think about it. If your tight end is on the field for a pass play but he stays in to block, who cares? Might as well be sitting in the stands. Some folks will look at snap share or route participation and those are nice. We want those high, obviously. But there are plenty of examples of outliers for those concepts. Mark Andrews in 2019 only played 41% of the snaps - how on GOAT’s green earth was he a top-five tight end? In 2018 Zach Ertz only had a 76% route participation (per Player Profiler). So how is he getting 156 targets? After boiling it all down, I’ve found that pass blocking percentage is actually the “stickier” stat with a lot fewer outliers.
That stickiness also tends to work with smaller sample sizes to see how a guy might operate before they even get the high snap share or route participation. Let’s take Mark Andrews for instance. As a rookie in 2018, he only pass blocked on 1.6% of snaps which was one of the reasons were were on him in 2019. Then, in that season, where Andrews still only played 41% of the snaps because the Ravens had Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst, Andrews was only asked to pass block on seven snaps the entire season - that’s 2% of his snaps which led the entire league. That pure usage from the early low snap seasons translated to his more recent high snap share seasons and that’s where he really took off. In fact, he then went to 1.3% in 2021 and, in 2022, he literally only blocked on one pass play (0.2%). When Andrews is in the game, he’s running a route virtually every time they are throwing. Doesn’t get better really. Here's an example of how many more routes some heavier blockers would have run in 2021 is their pass black rate was as low as Andrews.
For some of those fellas, it’s almost 100 more routes. Big clunky blocking goons like Chris Manhertz and Chris Herndon have actually blocked on over 100 pass plays in a season. A hundred times, the coach said “hey we are going to throw it now so why don’t you just stay out of the way”. It’s not good for fantasy football. And we know that because, in recent years, only one tight end has finished top five in PPR while blocking on more than 15% of his pass snaps and that was George Kittle in 2019 at 15.9%. He’s arguably the best two-way tight end in the game. Before that you need to go back to that mythical season we mentioned earlier when Peyton Manning threw 55 TDs in 2013 and Julius Thomas snuck in the top five with double-digit TDs. Like that stupid Robert Tonyan season, it happens so infrequently that it’s not worth thinking about.
But, for the sake of science, let’s think about that Orange Julius season with the golden forehead at QB. It is interesting because the coach that year was Adam Gase (the same Adam Gase that had Chris Herndon block on over 100 pass snaps with the Jets). Here is how Mike Gesicki’s pass-blocking numbers stacked up under Gase in 2018 vs. the following year under Brian Flores in 2019. Look how his production changed.
Pretty jarring. In fact, in 2019, Gesicki under Flores played only 19 more pass plays than Herndon under Gase but ran an absurd 110 more routes. So Gesicki is really a shining example of how a scheme or coaching change can make or break upside for a tight end. Also, Adam Gase is basically the Tight End Devil. The real problem for fantasy gamers isn’t when guys change teams or the scheme changes but it’s when you sit there looking at the same player in the same scheme year after year, wondering why he doesn’t break out. And the answer is often that he’s being asked to pass block. For instance, folks year after year predicted a breakout for Tyler Higbee, meanwhile, he’s blocking on 21.1% of his career pass plays. That’s one out of every five. From 2017 to 2020 he blocked on 26.5%, 36.8%, 24.7%, and 21.3% of pass plays. Mostly while not being a top two target on his team. Fading him in fantasy was not difficult if you were paying attention.
These first two categories, the pass blocking and the spot in the target pecking order, are the biggest hurdles that you absolutely need to get past. Otherwise, the race is over before it starts. They are the foundation of our analysis. After that, everything else is gravy. Or carrots or whatever the soup metaphor was from earlier. I really don’t even know what else is in chicken noodle soup. Parsley? The point is, if you start there and add some of the following attributes, you can hopefully create the perfect machine for tight end production. Then you just need to hope that the coaching staff feeds that machine a lot of snaps. Soup analogy is done now, let’s talk about machines.
The Tight End Machine
The rest of these items simply make your tight end more efficient for fantasy production. If they get the prerequisite 90 targets, they are in good shape but everything in this section will make sure those targets don’t go to waste. And alignment kind of goes hand in hand with pass blocking but it’s not nearly as predictive nor entirely necessary. We’ve seen tight ends have monster seasons lining up primarily in-line (Rob Gronkowski pretty much his whole career) and we’ve seen them have huge seasons running a ton of snaps from the slot (Tony Gonzalez under Chan Gailey in 2008 has the second most routes run from the slot of any player, including wide receivers). Like I said, not entirely necessarily. But we do know that lining up at wide receiver is typically beneficial for a tight end. And that’s especially true if the team uses two tight ends.
The best recent example we have was the period of time when the Eagles had both Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz. In the later years, an argument could be made that Dallas Goedert had surpassed Zach Ertz as a pass catcher. But here’s the rub - Dallas Goedert is by far the better blocker. He even graded as high as TE2 in run blocking in 2019, per PFF. So, when you have one role that involves an in-line tight end, and one role that involves a guy lining up primarily in the slot, you aren’t going to ask Zach Ertz to stay inline so Goedert can run routes. That would be stupid (and we have certainly seen stupid coaches). So, in this case, Ertz got to play the slot by default. Here’s how it looked with and without Ertz as an example.
- In week 12 of 2020, with no Ertz, Dallas Goedert ran 55 routes out of the 58 pass plays the Eagles ran (95%). He played 33 snaps in the slot.
- In week 14, when Ertz returned, Dallas Goedert ran 24 of 36 routes (67%). He only played nine slot snaps
Thus the conundrum for Goedert for many years. It’s not always about who is the best pass catcher in a vacuum. You need to put yourself in the coach’s shoes and look over the entire tight end room to visualize who might be asked to do what. It’s not always a linear depth chart. Delanie Walker, on a roster with Vernon Davis in SF, skewed blocking for SEVEN years before he changed teams and broke out for fantasy at age 30. It explains why Jonnu Smith often played in-line and Anthony Firkser played slot on the Titans, hurting Jonnu’s upside. It explains the dichotomy between OJ Howard and Cameron Brate on the Buccaneers before Gronk. When Kyle Pitts showed up, what happened to Hayden Hurst on the Falcons? Clunk city. We want the guy lining up at wide receiver and running the routes. From there, this next factor comes into play.
Man To Man Coverage
Anyone can catch the ball uncovered (except if your initials are EE like Evan Engram and Eric Ebron). Most guys can make plays vs. zone. Not everyone can win in man to man. It’s a crucial skill and you need it to even get the opportunity to line up in the slot or at wide receiver. They aren’t going to stick you out there just to get eaten up by a real cornerback or safety. But those who can do it are typically studs. Here is the list of reception leaders vs. man coverage over the last two seasons as well as their end zone target totals.
That’s like a who’s who of who is at least pretty good. The ability to beat man coverage also correlates highly with red zone prowess. It should come as no surprise that these type players often lead the league in contested catches as well (Mark Andrews led in 2021 with 18, TJ Hockenson led in 2022 with 15). When you really think about it it's obvious why the ability to beat guys in man to man and snag contested passes would corelate highly to touchdowns. Goal line situations are typically “zero coverage” meaning lockdown, one on one. You just gotta beat that man.
Red Zone Prowess
Since this walks hand in hand with man to man, we might as well touch on this one here. It’s a complicated topic that bothers the nerd in me to no end because I prefer a little more mathematical correlation. But there are certain situations that just don’t translate well to numbers yet that doesn’t make them irrelevant. There’s no formula here that is going to tell us why and when Patrick Mahomes is going to flip a goal-line shovel pass to Travis Kelce. We just know from our experience that they do it and that it is virtually unguardable at times.
So what we have to do is simply consider the historic trends of the sample sizes we have while also factoring in any relevant narratives we can. The historic trend part is easy. For instance, no tight end has more red zone or end zone targets over the last three years than Mark Andrews. That’s easy enough to look up. For the narrative part, you need to do a little more critical thinking. Do the tight end and quarterback have a history of connecting in the red zone? Are there any new additions (or subtractions) that could affect the number of red zone targets a player might get? Is the team good enough to get the ball into the red zone in the first place? This is honestly why we don’t like chasing touchdowns. All that stuff could be there but someone else just scores in any given week. We have to discuss it because of the heavy weight of touchdowns in fantasy football but it can be fairly fluky and unpredictable, hence why it’s an ancillary piece of the puzzle. Just another cog in the machine. We prefer to lean into categories that are a little easier to quantify.
Average Depth of Target
Like average depth of target. That’s a little more quantifiable. It’s familiar and soothing to our inner sports geekdom.
Average depth of target (or aDot, as I will refer to it as moving forward so I don’t lose my mind) measures how far down the field your tight end is getting on average when the quarterback throws him the ball. Here’s a tried and true example that I’ve been using since 2017 that illustrates why it matters, utilizing stats from Josh Hersmeyer’s site AirYards.com.
Now, let’s dissect these stat lines. They have pretty much the same yards after the catch (YAC). And Player A actually has more catches. Yet Player B was the far better fantasy asset. Why? Because Player B had an average depth of target of 12.1 yards which means he was getting downfield on his routes. Player A had an average depth of target of only 4.9 yards which means he was hanging around the line of scrimmage, looking for dump-offs. Lame. Player A was Jack Doyle and Player B was Rob Gronkowski, the TE1 from that season.
If you want a more recent and extreme example, look no further than Kyle Pitts vs. CJ Uzomah in 2021. Including the playoffs, Pitts had 68 catches for 1,026 yards and YAC of 318 yards. Uzomah had 64 catches for 639 yards with YAC of 382 yards. Uzomah actually had more yards after the catch but the aDot of 11.2 for Pitts vs. 4.7 for Uzomah made all of the difference.
Since we are on the topic of average depth of target and yards after the catch, let’s talk about a key factor for both. And that is pure, unadulterated SPEED, baby. The correlations are once again loose so this isn’t necessarily a “hard and fast” rule like the target pecking order or pass blocking but it certainly helps. Anecdotally, and based on common sense, of course it’s going to help to be faster than your opponents in a game where they are trying to chase you down and tackle you. But we can also quantify it to a certain degree as well. Here are some speed comparisons from 2019 in relation to yards after the catch per reception.
These fast dudes also tend to make bigger plays. I know this because I’ve been painstakingly tracking it WITH MY BARE HANDS. Just kidding, I keep it on a spreadsheet, it’s really not that much work. Over the last five years, there have only been 12 plays of 70+ yards by tight ends. The only player with more than one is George Kittle. He actually has three of them. And he also has 96th percentile speed at the position per PlayerProfiler. In fact, there have only been three plays of 80+ yards by a tight end over that span and he has two of those two. Speed isn’t the end all but it’s an added bonus. Remember how I mentioned Jack Doyle earlier? That dude ran a 4.91 40 yard dash. Kellen Diesch, an offense tackle who is over 300 pounds, ran a 4.89 at the 2022 combine. Take a lap, Jack.
This is the last factor we need to hit on. The last part of the soup. Or a machine. And it goes down here at the very bottom because it is the number one most deceiving factor out there. Yes, it is important and it can give you an added bonus. But it’s not solely to be relied on when it is in conflict with the top two target rule. That is a mistake a lot of gamers make in terms of upside. Time and time again we see the fantasy community go for a tight end who is in a high volume pass attack but is the third or fourth target on the team. They go for Tyler Higbee on the Rams. Or Hayden Hurst on the Falcons before Kyle Pitts. This year I’m hearing that argument AGAIN for Hayden Hurst on the Bengals. There is a reason that the Falcons in 2020 can be fourth in passing and the Ravens can be dead last yet Mark Andrews was far and away the better asset than Hayden Hurst. So remember that pecking order comes before overall volume when you are trying to hit on a top five tight end.
Now that we have made ourself clear, let’s talk about why it’s a nice bonus. Just take our friend Mark Andrews there. The Ravens have been notoriously stingy with the passing, in large part thanks to Greg Roman. Actually, almost entirely because of Greg Roman. But, either way, Andrews is on top of the target totem pole. In 2020, Mark Andrews had a target share of 25.4% which amounted to 88 targets which was good for TE6 in PPR. In 2021, he had a similar target target share at 26.6%. But a funny thing happened. Instead of being bottom of the league in passing, they were middle of the pack. And that meant a huge boost in attempts so Andrews got a whopping 154 targets, leading the league. Which translated to a top five fantasy tight end season of all time. Team volume isn’t the end all, be all, but it certainly helps. And guess what? Greg Roman is gone for 2023 in favor of Todd Monken and his more pass happy Air Raid offense…
The TLDR of this whole little excursion is that an ideal tight end will:
- Be a top 2 target on his team
- Block on less than 15% of pass snaps (ideally, around 7% or less)
- Line up at wide receiver often
- Create for himself vs. man to man
- Have a knack for scoring
- Run real, high aDot routes,
- Run real fast
- Be part of a high volume offense
That’s it right there. The perfect tight end machine. You just input snaps and boom - out comes production. Unfortunately, all of that comes together pretty rarely and, when it does, those guys go off the board fairly quickly. In those early parts of drafts, we are asking ourselves “why?”. Why am I spending up for Travis Kelce? Because he fits a lot of these categories. That’s why. In the later rounds, when you are looking for sleepers that could have high end upside, the question flips. We stop asking “why?”. And start asking “why not?”. Why can’t this player be a top two target on his team? Why wouldn’t they use him in the slot at times? Why can’t he create for himself and score some touchdowns? If you take anything from this article at all, take that. Sure, you can draft a boring guy who is highly likely to be a backend TE1 since that’s “safe” if you want. I won’t stop you. But don’t just settle for that. Take a late stab on a guy you like the upside of. A guy with some soup. Then watch the waivers to see who might start looking like a prototypical tight end machine. And, until you have an elite tight end on your roster, continue to ask, “why not?”
Make sure you check out the rest of this four part Ultimate Tight End Series!
Link: 2022 Elite Tight Ends
Link: 2022 Tight Ends to Fade