This is it. Your definitive guide to drafting the tight end position in 2020. So buckle up.
(Your ride with O.J. Howard last year if you didn’t take our advice)
I’m going to try to make this introduction quick since you read the in depth intro last year and you probably won your league. If not, in last year’s intro article we did a thorough breakdown of what you are looking for in a high end tight end so feel free to check that out. We will rehash and update some of that info here below quickly with some key points. And by key points I mean that, in theory, if you simply absorb this info that I’m about to give you right now, then you wouldn’t even technically need to read the rest of the series or any series moving forward since you would know exactly how to evaluate tight ends and pick the best ones.
(Please still read the series though)
Key Metrics for Top Tight Ends
Top Two Target in Their Offense
This is the very first thing I list for a reason – it’s far and away the most important. Most fantasy leagues are 10-12 team leagues where you start one tight end. That means that, essentially, you’ve got 5-6 tight ends that are above average starters and then 5-6 that are below average starters. So, no matter whether you draft your guy early or wait and draft a couple, you are doing so because you believe you can identify at least one guy who will be an above average starter. It blows my mind when people say “I’ll just wait at tight end” then they draft two or three guys, all of which are buried on their teams target totem pole and none of which have a shot at being a top half TE1.
With that in mind, here are some quick facts on top five tight ends and targets. If this interests you, the full data sets with specific examples can be found in this article under The Target Conundrum.
- Every top five fantasy tight end for five straight seasons has been either the number one or number two target getter on his team.
- Every top five tight end during that same span has gotten at least 100 targets except for two who both had 95+ targets and 10 TDs (Jimmy Graham and Mark Andrews )
- Over the last five years, 97.5% of teams have had two or fewer players get 100+ targets
Plays Every Snap
This one seems pretty obvious but the truly elite tight ends in the top three or so are guys that don’t come off the field. The ideal number is over 90% of snaps though in the modern NFL that is both rare and difficult. There are other paths to top five with lower snap shares that we will get into but if you want a Kelce, Gronk, or Tony G at the very top it is usually a guy who is both a tremendous pass catcher and not a liability in terms of blocking.
The title once again seems obvious but getting into the nitty gritty of usage is crucial. For example, one metric to focus on is whether or not a tight end is routinely asked to pass block. For the most part, you want them pass blocking on a low percentage of pass plays – around 10% or less at minimum and even better if it’s 5% or less (though that’s not always easy for guys who play every single play because of screens and what have you).
Look at the Ravens for instance. Nick Boyle led the team with 769 offensive snaps. He was asked to run block on 478 plays which is brutal but even more egregious is that he was asked to PASS block on 58 pass plays or essentially 20% of his pass plays. That’s one in five pass plays where he’s not even an option. On the flip side, Mark Andrews only played 457 snaps which is almost half of what Boyle played. But he not only played on more pass plays and less run plays but he only blocked on FOUR pass plays which is 1.3%. So he actually ran more routes on the season than Boyle despite playing 312 fewer snaps. The days of one guy being the “starter” and everyone else being the “backup” are largely over so you need to know what the heck is going on in that tight end room. And the head coach or coordinator can play a huge role in this as we will discuss.
High Average Depth of Target
These all seem simple right? Well this one is. Guys who are getting down field more often generate more yards. If you look at last year’s article, there is a great example using Jack Doyle and Rob Gronkowski that illustrates the disparity. The number doesn’t need to be crazy but, based on my research into tight end success, any average depth of target (aDot) under seven yards means that your tight end mostly hangs around the line of scrimmage chipping and acting as a safety valve which makes it hard to provide elite production.
We just told you why low average depth of target is Bad News Bears for your tight end. But you know what can help make up for that? Speed. It’s a simple equation. Short pass plus speed equals yards after the catch (YAC). In fact, 40 time and YAC are typically fairly correlated for tight ends, as you can see in the following tweet by some handsome gentleman who pretends to know a bit about tight ends.
People harp on 40 times for RB/WR but I think it's even more crucial for TE because it's a position where you can get playing time even if you're slow.— Andrew Cooper (@CoopAFiasco) July 23, 2020
Here are some examples of 40 time vs. yards after the catch per reception. Slow guys need more targets and/or TDs to compete. pic.twitter.com/8bHMjDAPtF
Fast isn’t everything for tight ends but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Red Zone Prowess
There’s a lot that goes into red zone ability. Size. Catch radius. Opportunity. But there is clearly something else that transcends just measurables for some red zone magnets which only historical data and actual observation can tell us. In certain instances, you’ll find a mysterious sort of mind meld between two guys like Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson or Aaron Rodgers and James Jones that is really best recognized by actually watching the games. I say games and not “tape” because the flow of the game also provides info that a highlight reel of that player’s plays simply doesn’t. When it’s third and goal from the seven in a one score game it matters who the QB picks to chuck it up to. And that admission begrudgingly comes from a big start nerd like myself who rarely trusts anyone’s “eye test” – even my own. In general, I’m not going to listen to someone explain to me that they watched a bunch of TV and decided Tyler Higbee was the TE6 this year but I am willing listen when someone in the know says that the QB and TE have some sort of special bond or trust.
Let’s go back to the Ravens again for our example. Nick Boyle played 769 snaps. Mark Andrews played 457. What people might not realize is that, not only did Hayden Hurst also play 457 snaps, but he too only blocked on four pass snaps, just like Andrews. Hurst is essentially the same height, same weight, and same speed while being drafted in the first round of the same draft where Andrews went in the third. Yet Mark Andrews received 19 red zone targets scoring nine touchdowns on those while Hayden Hurst (seven RZ targets) and Nick Boyle (five) combined for only 12 RZ targets and three RZ touchdowns. Think about that. In 1,226 snaps, two guys combined for 12 RZ targets and the other one, in 457 snaps, got 19. Clearly there is something there between Mark Andrews and Lamar Jackson that we need to take note of.
Now, without further ado…
Your Elite Tight Ends
Now that we’ve gone through the most important tight end evaluation information possible which most of you probably barely skimmed, if not outright skipped, let’s get into the rankings themselves.
(The average Redditor pretending they just read the intro)
Like last year, this is going to be a four part series. But this year I’m grouping it differently for simplicity sake.
- First Article – Intro and the Elite
- Second Article – Early Target
- Third Article – Tight Ends to Avoid
- Fourth Article – Late Round Flyers
For each player I’ll give you the good, the bad, and my advice based on ADP. For all four articles, we are going to be assuming a 12 team, half point PPR league. There is a TE premium/superflex article with full advice/breakdown in the draft guide or, if your league is weird, just ask me questions right on Twitter @CoopAFiasco – I love questions and I love tight ends and I love but also hate Twitter.
Anyway, here are this year’s super elite tight ends.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’m honestly not going to spend too much time here as not much has changed for Kelce or the Chief’s roster/philosophy and he is currently the best and safest fantasy tight end, no question. KC just won the whole damn thing and essentially focused on maintaining the high octane offense they already built. Kelce himself has been the top TE in half point PPR three out of the last four years and the other year he was second only to Gronk. We ranked him first last year and pretty much everything we said there remains the same. They didn’t add too many offensive weapons, he blocked on less than 10% of pass plays, played almost all the snaps, led the league in redzone targets – you name it. In short, he was Travis Kelce .
One small benefit I will mention for this 2020 is that they added Ricky Seals-Jones as a backup pass catching tight end so now he actually has a viable handcuff in case of a rare injury. What more could you want?
Not much here to be honest. Age perhaps but he’s still only 30. You could make the argument that Ricky Seals-Jones could eat garbage time snaps which takes away from his overall total but you aren’t usually throwing much in garbage time anyway. None of that moves him down from tight end one. He’s just solid.
And here’s where it gets interesting. I just said all those nice things but, for the most part, I’m not drafting him in redraft leagues. And it’s not that he’s not worth his ADP in the second round –it’s that he typically delivers exactly his ADP. Which is the top tight end but not close to the best player in fantasy. You are paying the ceiling price for the ceiling production (which, for Kelce is also the floor). But that also means you aren’t really generating additional value. At pick 17-18 on average, we are in the second round where I’m still looking for solid guys who also have the upside that takes your team to another level like a Dalvin Cook , Derrick Henry , or Chris Godwin in 2019. So feel free to take Kelce if you prefer a more conservative approach but I am confident in my abilities to use the tight end position to generate value well above ADP like with our recommendations to grab Mark Andrews and Darren Waller last season.
We ranked Kittle highly last season but were skeptical he could keep up some outlier metrics such as his high target share and his high YAC. But then he came right back and finished with the highest target share (28.2% per PlayerProfiler.com) and the most YAC (602 yards per AirYards.com) of all tight ends. Part of the process is identifying single season outliers and being weary of them but, if they can consistently perform in that fashion year to year, then you dismiss those worries. As we mentioned last year, Kittle’s 4.52 forty yard dash is 96th percentile for tight ends so the YAC being repeatable to a certain degree is not a surprise.
One metric that concerned us in 2018 that was concerning once again in 2019 was the amount that Kittle was called on to block. He played 802 regular season snaps and blocked on 368 runs but, even more troubling, was that he blocked on 68 PASS plays. I know it comes with the territory with a dink and dunk offense like Shanahan’s but this limited him to only 338 routes run which was actually 18th among tight ends, tied with the likes of Kyle Rudolph and actually below Tyler Eifert . Kittle is an amazing blocker which makes him arguably the best all-around tight end in football but, for fantasy football, that can sometimes be a negative. I was actually considering having him at tight end three this year with the addition of Brandon Aiyuk/Jordan Reed and the assumption that Deebo Samuel takes a step forward in target share but the injury to Deebo should help maintain Kittle’s outrageously high target share – at least in the early going.
George is a fantastic tight end and I certainly wouldn’t fault you for doing it but I’m simply not taking him in the second round of fantasy drafts. As with Kelce, I want to generate value and I think there are RBs and WRs available in the second that are the better option - especially given all the “Robust RB” chatter and how early running backs are going. Kittle is a smash in the third round of course if he falls.
Last year Mark Andrews was our premier breakout in our late round sleeper article which will once again be the fourth article in this series. Coming out of 2018, he essentially checked all boxes in terms of a guy who simply needed more opportunity to succeed. Well he got that opportunity and clearly succeed he did. Let’s look at the boxes again based on 2019.
- Top Two Target – led the team in targets - checked
- Snaps – only played 41.36% of snaps – not checked
- Usage – only pass blocked on four pass plays and ran routes on ~65% of his snaps – checked
- High Average Depth of Target – led all tight ends (15+ catch minimum) with a 10.6 yard aDot -checked
- Speed – 4.67 40-yard dash isn’t blazing but it’s not terrible – kind of checked
- Red Zone Prowess – tied Michael Thomas for most red zone TDs with nine, tied George Kittle for third in red zone targets for tight ends with 19
So basically, the only boxes he didn’t emphatically check were speed (which didn’t seem to hamper him) and snaps. He split snaps with Hayden Hurst last year 457 a piece and Hayden Hurst was traded to the Falcons.
We know that Hayden Hurst vacated a huge number of snaps but the Ravens in general had the least consolidated snap share among position players of any team. The leaders of WR/RB/TE were Nick Boyle (69%), Willie Snead (61%), and Marquise Brown (51%). No one else played more than 50% of the snaps. To put that in perspective, a team like the Panthers had Christian McCaffrey (93%), Curtis Samuel (86%), DJ Moore (82%), and Greg Olsen (71%) that all played a higher percentage of snaps than Nick Boyle who played the most snaps among position players for the Ravens. Even their fifth highest, Jarius Wright (62%), played more than the Ravens second highest. The different personnel groups and mass substitutions that the Ravens use are clearly by design so I’m hesitant to take the Hayden Hurst snaps and just tack them on for Andrews. Besides his lack of blazing speed, this trend by Harbauch and company of spreading out the snaps is really the only negative that I have for Andrews.
This is the first tight end that I’m realistically drafting. Not that I don’t love Kelce and Kittle, nor would I fault you for taking the chalk at ADP in the second, but you are paying a premium with hopes they return their ceiling once again. Unlike those two at ADP 18.7 and 20.7, respectively, Andrews has an ADP of 36.3 meaning not only is he very much available in the third but he’s often times available in the fourth or even fifth depending on league size and format. With that Andrews has the chance to be the third or fourth TE drafted from a couple rounds behind the top dogs and potentially finish as the number one tight end, which is an actual value generating proposition. For me, Andrews in the fourth/fifth round is a value I won’t pass up on which makes him the tight end from this tier that I’m most likely to own.
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.
Do you want more tight end break downs from Coop?? Check out his 2020 NFL Draft Guide article "Tight End Draft Strategies" where he goes further in depth, breaking down tight end handcufs, offensive game plans and strategies for different league formats when it comes to the tight end position!
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