Best-Ball Notebook: Tight Ends

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Best-Ball Notebook: Tight Ends

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Outside of a handful of elite options, tight end is the most scarce position in fantasy football. In redraft leagues, it’s much easier to replace TE production off of waivers. Of course, the goal of TE streaming isn’t to just keep scrounging around at the bottom of the barrel of replacement-level options. Darren Waller was one of the biggest league-winners in recent memory and went undrafted in some leagues last year. If you took Travis Kelce early, you were rewarded with the No. 1 scoring tight end but the sharp managers that either spent a late-round pick on Waller or picked him up off of waivers were awarded a weekly top-5 TE for free.

This lesson can be broadly applied to best-ball leagues. Because the position is so scarce and because ADP is so efficient in the early rounds -- everyone knows Kelce and Kittle are the best options -- I’ve been taking a barbell approach to tight end in all of my drafts. Thinking of investing like the weights on a barbell was a strategy made popular by Nassim Taleb and it has broad applications to our game. On one side the barbell we have picks that are high risk but offer a high reward potential (think late-round tight ends) while on the other side you have options with low risk that offer safety (think Kelce and Kittle). Meanwhile, you completely avoid the middle ground (or average risk) at tight end. You’re either seeking safety or upside and nothing in between.

In Scott’s Anatomy of a Leauge Winner piece, it’s clear that making your TE picks with a barbell mindset is a league-winning strategy. Over the last three seasons, the 10 most common tight ends on championship rosters were either taken in the first four rounds of drafts, they were late-round options (Round 10 or later), or they weren’t drafted at all. You either want the safest picks in the early rounds (on the low-risk side of the barbell) or the late-round, riskier picks (on the high-risk side) and nothing in between.

I’ve been drafting Kelce and George Kittle a bunch this year because of the consistency and safety they provide. It also allows you to not have to worry about tight end for the rest of the draft and lets you build up other positions on your roster. Over the last two years, Kelce (finished as a TE1 in 84% of games) and Kittle (TE1 in 80% of games) have been unrivaled top tier players relative to their position. Mark Andrews and Zach Ertz are both in this conversation too, just to a lesser extent. Both go in the 4th or 5th round of most drafts and both finished as weekly TE1’s in over two-thirds of their games last year. Even though they’re both expensive relative to the rest of the position, both Andrews and Ertz are still values because of the consistency they provide. And, as you will read below, Andrews looks like a league-winner once again.

TE roster construction

In BestBall10 leagues, you have to fill 20 roster spots and start 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 FLEX (RB/WR/TE), and 1 D/ST every week. RBs, WRs, and TEs all earn one point per reception. Out of all of the positions, TE roster construction is the easiest and most straight-forward. 97% of BB10 teams have selected two or three tight ends this year.

Let common sense be your guide with your TE roster builds. If you do spend up at tight end in the early rounds on Kelce or Andrews, the wisest choice is most likely to only take one other TE for the rest of your draft. If you go with the other, riskier side of the barbell and load up on late-round tight targets -- you’ll definitely want to take 3 of them to give yourself as many weekly options as possible.

Which TE stats matter the most?

Just like we discussed in the wide receiver notebook, targets and air yards are the main factors that drive tight end scoring while yards per route run is the GOAT efficiency metric:

StatCorrelation
Targets0.97
Air Yards0.93
Routes0.86
Yards per route run0.64
Yards per target0.36
Yards per reception0.26
Average depth of target0.26
Catch rate0.17
Yards after the catch-0.01

Getting on the field and getting playing time is only half of the battle for pass catchers because targets = talent in the NFL. Over the last two years, the top three tight ends in targets per game are Kelce, Kittle, and Ertz by a mile. Meanwhile, even though Mark Andrews wasn’t a full-time player last year and didn’t run as nearly as many routes as Kelce or even Kittle, he was still funneled the ball every time he was on the field. In 2019, Lamar Jackson targeted Andrews on a league-high 36% of his routes. The next two closest players in targets per route run were Kittle (34%) and Austin Ekeler (33%).

This has been a running theme of these notebooks, but by in large, ignoring all efficiency stats and solely drafting for volume will probably make your projections and draft picks better. Except for yards per route run. At tight end, YPRR is 2.5 times more impactful on fantasy output as yards per reception and over 3.5 times more meaningful than catch rate.

These are the top-15 TEs in yards per route run over the last two combined seasons:

  1. George Kittle
  2. Darren Waller
  3. Mark Andrews
  4. Travis Kelce
  5. Tyler Higbee
  6. Jared Cook
  7. Zach Ertz
  8. Rob Gronkowski
  9. Evan Engram
  10. Eric Ebron
  11. Dallas Goedert
  12. Hunter Henry
  13. O.J. Howard
  14. Jordan Reed
  15. Blake Jarwin

TE tiers

Tier 1
Tier 2
Tier 3
Tier 4
Tier 5
Tier 6
Tier 7
Tier 8

TEs to target

(Note: These are the players I’m targeting when I do not take Kelce or Kittle in the second-round.)

Mark Andrews (Round 3-5) -- After breaking out for 64/852/10 (TE5 finish) at 23-years-old last year, Andrews will have a great chance to improve on those numbers in 2020. Hayden Hurst’s departure quietly leaves behind 10% of Ravens targets from last year and it should make Andrews an every-down player. Last season, Andrews led Ravens tight ends in routes run (19.7 per game) but Hurst was still pretty heavily involved (12.9 routes per game). Andrews was just dominant in a part-time role in his sophomore campaign because Lamar Jackson targeted him more often than any player in the NFL was thrown to. Now, Hurst is gone and the Ravens are going to rely even more heavily on Andrews as their No. 1 target. Plus, we should expect Baltimore to throw a little bit more this year after winning 14 games and leading on a league-high 81% of their snaps last season. The Ravens are still a double-digit win team with ease, but if they are in tighter ball games this year and Jackson is forced to the air more, Andrews will have an outside chance to finish top-2 at the position.

Hayden Hurst (Round 9-11) -- Hurst’s average draft position is starting to skyrocket as we get closer to the season and I’ve pumped the brakes on him a little bit for that reason, but even in the 9th round, I think there is still plenty of potential value there. The Falcons traded a 2nd round pick for Hurst this spring -- which was largely viewed as an overpay -- and do not have a third passing target behind Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. The team is invested in making Hurst work and his environment for production is perfect. After being the No. 2 tight end behind Mark Andrews on a run-first Baltimore team, Hurst’s new team is the complete opposite. In OC Dirk Koetter’s return last year, Atlanta was the most pass-heavy team when leading (58%) and the third-most pass-heavy team in the league when the game was within a score (63%) and when trailing (75%). There is also a chance Hurst might be more talented and versatile of a player than the guy he’s replacing, Austin Hooper. Over the last two years, Hurst has averaged more yards per route than Hooper (1.58 vs. 1.42) and been way more explosive after the catch when targeted downfield. On all targets traveling 10 or more yards in the air, Hurst has averaged 7.9 yards after the catch while Hooper has as averaged a lowly 3.2 YAC in this span.

Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson (Round 10-12) -- With Hurst’s ADP rising, I’ve pivoted back to the cheaper Fant and Hockenson when I miss out on Hurst. For what it’s worth, Fant (122 overall) and Hockenson (127) have virtually the same exact average draft position. Fant's 562 yards as a rookie ranks 14th-best for any TE 22 years old or younger all-time. Even though Lock is by no means a finished product and the Broncos have two very talented wideouts between Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, Fant is the cheapest of Denver’s pass catchers. And there is reason to believe Denver will be more pass-heavy than some are expecting. New OC Pat Shurmur's Giants were the 4th- and 10th-most pass-heavy teams when the game was within a score (+/- 8 points) over the last two seasons. Meanwhile, Hockenson was on pace for 549 yards before Matthew Stafford got hurt. Outside of Week 1, Hockenson’s rookie season looks like a disappointment on the surface-level but don’t forget he sustained a concussion in Week 6 and he hurt his shoulder in the middle of the season that caused him to miss the team’s final three games. Like Fant, Hockenson also has to deal with two supremely talented wideouts and is at best the No. 3 target on his team but both of these tight ends should command more targets in their second season. Tight end is the hardest position for rookies to learn outside of quarterback and both Fant and Hockenson are freak athletes and mismatch nightmares. At the 2019 combine, Fant’s forty-yard dash time was in the 97th percentile for tight ends when you adjust for weight while Hockenson’s was in the 77th percentile.

Blake Jarwin (Round 11-13) -- Last year, geriatric Jason Witten -- who just spent the previous year on the couch and in the TV booth -- walked on to the field at 37-years-old and got 83 targets. Witten led Dallas in red-zone targets (inside-10 yard line), he finished 8th among TEs in receptions, was 10th in targets, 11th in fantasy points, and 13th in air yards. What will Jarwin do with a similar level of opportunity? Last year, Jarwin ranked 11th out of 47 TEs (with at least 25 targets) in yards per route run. Witten ranked 28th in YPRR. Even if he’s the No. 4 target behind Cooper, Gallup, and Lamb -- the path for Jarwin to see 85-95 targets is pretty easy if Dallas throws the ball 600 times. Dak Prescott had 596 pass attempts in 2019. I want exposure to the Cowboys offense whenever I can get it and Jarwin is extremely underpriced (ADP: TE19) relative to his upside.

Chris Herndon (Round 11-13) -- With all of the Jets issues at wide receiver, Herndon has shaped up as an extremely sharp late-round TE dart. Sam Darnold and Herndon have apparently picked up right where they left off in 2018 in training camp this August. New York desperately needs their connection. Back in their rookie seasons, the Darnold-to-Herndon connection led the team in YPA (9.0), success rate (61%), and catch rate above expectation (11.3%). I wish I had gotten on the Herndon train earlier, but his ADP really hasn’t risen at all. Over the last three weeks, Herndon has been drafted as the TE20. (Added 8/31)

Eric Ebron (Round 14 or later) -- The great thing about best-ball is that it allows you to draft players you otherwise wouldn’t roster in season-long leagues or DFS. At his ADP (TE22), Ebron is so cheap that he won’t even come close to killing your team if he busts. Back in 2018 when Roethlisberger was healthy, the Steelers were the most pass-heavy team when the game was within a score (66.4%) and when trailing (81.5%). In that year, the Steelers TEs ranked 8th in fantasy points, 7th in receptions, and 5th in yards. Pittsburgh is going to throw a ton this season and Ebron will assuredly have 2-3 blowup games. We might not know when those great Ebron games are coming, but in best-ball, that doesn’t matter.

Jace Sternberger (Round 16 or later) -- After an ankle injury caused him to miss most of his rookie year, Sternberger has been an afterthought in most best-ball drafts this summer. That’s a mistake. With only Davante Adams entrenched as the Packers top target, Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have a clear-cut No. 2 target. That could be Sternberger. The whole Rodgers “doesn’t throw to his TEs narrative is completely overblown. Over the last two years, the Packers rank 12th in both targets per game and target share to their tight ends. And that was with late-career Jimmy Graham as their only decent tight end. Sternberger was PFF’s No. 1 graded tight end when he came out of college after he led Texas A&M in targets, receptions, yards, TDs, and yards per reception.

Gerald Everett (Round 17 or later) -- See the Tyler Higbee blurb below.

TEs to fade

Darren Waller -- Unfortunately, Waller looks like he’s in the “middle ground” of the barbell that I’m fading aggressively at tight end. After going in the 14th round (or later) in most leagues last year, Waller’s ADP has skyrocketed into the 5th-6th round of best-ball this summer. Waller was awesome last year and I am not taking anything away from his talent or how unique of a player he is, but his cost has just gotten to a point where a fade is warranted. After breaking out for 90/1145/3 last season, Waller’s target share may dip some this season after the team used their first-round pick on Henry Ruggs and third-round pick on Bryan Edwards. Last year, Waller led the team in targets (117) mainly because he’s good at the game but he was also the only legitimately good option in the Raiders passing attack. Remember, Tyrell Williams injured his foot early in the season and played at less than 100 percent, too. Plus, Waller’s lowly touchdown total from last year isn’t likely to skyrocket. Waller saw only four targets inside of the 10-yard line in 2019 while Travis Kelce saw 12 inside-10 targets (in 15 games) and George Kittle had 9 (in 14 games).

Tyler Higbee -- This isn’t so much of a fade but more of a “don’t overpay.” In general, I’m fine with drafting Higbee in the 9th or 10th round but have seen him go much, much earlier in some drafts. Higbee’s finish to last season was incredible -- he led all players in receiving yards in Week 13-17 -- but that stretch of production needs a huge dose of context. First of all, four of those 5 games in Higbee’s stretch run came against a bottom-3 defense in fantasy points allowed to tight ends (Arizona - twice; Dallas; Seattle). Also, Gerald Everett was hurt and did not play in Week 13-15 and in Week 17. Everett played just four snaps in Week 16, signaling he wasn’t close to 100 percent healthy from his wrist injury. Keep in mind, before Everett got hurt, he was the Rams No. 1 tight end. Not Higbee. And it wasn’t close. In Week 1-12, Everet ran way more routes (261 to 130) and saw more targets (55 to 36) than Higbee. This quote from HC Sean McVay in April should also scare Higbee truthers. McVay said, “Really, really excited about what Everett’s going to do [this year]… I think Higbee did a phenomenal job, but I think Everett’s a guy that I’ve got to do a better job of utilizing his skill set because he’s a difference-maker.” Higbee’s ADP is 86 overall. Everett’s is 206.

Mike Gesicki -- Other than drafters blindly following unreasonable fantasy hype, there is no reason for Gesicki (ADP: 115 overall) to go ahead of Fant (122) and Hockenson (127) in drafts. Last year, Gesicki was a completely forgotten man before Preston Williams went out for the season in Week 10 with a torn ACL. Gesicki averaged just 4.4 targets per game when Williams was healthy and his targets spiked to 7.3 per game in Weeks 10-17 without Williams. Even though he saw more opportunity after Williams missed time, Gesicki was largely inefficient. In Week 10-17, Gesicki ranked 20th in yards per route run out of 24 TEs and was 15th in fantasy points per target. Now, Miami has a new OC, a new QB, and Williams is back healthy. Keep in mind, in new OC Chan Gailey’s last five coaching stops, his TEs have finished last in the NFL in targets three times and 28th twice. Gesicki is the easiest TE fade on the board.

Graham Barfield blends data and film together to create some of the most unique content in the fantasy football industry. Barfield is FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and formerly worked for the NFL Network, Fantasy Guru, and Rotoworld.

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