Anticipating the Breakout: Tight End Trends & Breakout Candidates (Fantasy Football)
Continuing our Fantasy Breakout series, we shift our focus to the Tight End position. While there is a clear top tier of TE1s led by Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews, the tail end of the top-12 is a little more ambiguous heading into 2022. While players like Dawson Knox and Noah Fant are candidates to repeat as TE1s, it would not be surprising if a few new players emerged this season.
To identify who those potential breakout candidates could be, I analyzed 22 years of fantasy data to find trends and similarities among the players that broke out during that timespan. Before we dig into my findings, here are some of the parameters of my analysis:
- The timeframe of my dataset spans from 2000 to 2021 (sourced from Stathead)
- To identify the breakout seasons in that timespan, I filtered on players drafted since 2000
- A breakout season for a Tight End is identified as a top-12 fantasy season in PPR per game scoring (min. 8 games played)
- My sample size only includes players that were drafted and exclude UDFAs
- Sample Size: 67 Breakout Tight Ends
Breakouts by Draft Capital + Hit Rates
To start things off, I charted my sample size of 67 Tight Ends based on their draft capital. As expected, the first round leads the way with 21 breakouts, while the second and third rounds account for 15 and 12, respectively. The more shocking number can be found in round four, which still holds a significant sample size of 9 breakouts (13.4% of the total). As I noted in my first two articles of this series, there was a clear decline in day-3 fantasy breakouts for Running Backs and Wide Receivers. However, for Tight Ends, the decline from rounds three to four seems to be more gradual.
We see a similar pattern when we analyze the breakout hit rates for each round. To calculate this metric, I focused on players drafted from 2000 to 2015, a filtered group of Tight Ends with at least seven seasons to break out for fantasy. By far the most compelling number in the table below is the 88.9% hit rate for first-round Tight Ends, which is higher than the hit rate for first-round Wide Receivers and Running Backs. So while it is not as common to see one drafted in the first round, the few that do get selected that early are almost always guaranteed to have at least one top-12 season in their career. In fact, of the 18 first-round Tight Ends in my sample size, the only two that did not break out are Jerramy Stevens and Anthony Becht, who were both drafted in the early 2000s. And most recently, we saw that hit rate further confirmed with players like Kyle Pitts, T.J. Hockenson, and Noah Fant breaking out early in their careers.
Outside of the first round, we do see a sizable drop-off in hit rates in rounds two and three, with the second round having a significant edge at 44.4%. Surprisingly, however, we once again see a relatively minor decline from rounds three to four, as both of their hit rates are just slightly above 20%. For the last three rounds, the combined TE1 rates come in at 6.82%, clearly highlighting how unlikely it is to find the next Delanie Walker or George Kittle.
From a production standpoint, per the data below, most TE breakout seasons hover around 10 to 11 PPR points regardless of their draft capital. Furthermore, only about 28 to 38% of breakout Tight Ends finish within the top 6, implying that most do not enter the elite tier until later in their career. Surprisingly, we did have two TEs emerge as the TE1 in their breakout campaign: Todd Heap in 2002 and Rob Gronkowski in 2011. Finally, similar to other skill positions, we once again see a link between draft capital and extended fantasy dominance, with Day 1 and 2 breakout Tight Ends averaging around 3.7 top-12 seasons in their career.
For Tight Ends drafted in the 1st Round, in their breakout season:
- The average fantasy finish is TE8
- The average PPR per game production is 10.5
- 37.5% finished within the top 6
- Average 3.4 Top-12 Seasons in their career
- 62.5% Finish their career with 3+ Top-12 Seasons
For Tight Ends drafted in the 2nd and 3rd Round, in their breakout season:
- The average fantasy finish is TE8
- The average PPR per game production is 11.2
- 28.6% finished within the top 6
- Average 3.9 Top-12 Seasons in their career
- 52.4% Finish their career with 3+ Top-12 Seasons
For Tight Ends drafted in the 4th – 7th Round, in their breakout season:
- The average fantasy finish is TE7
- The average PPR per game production is 11.6
- 37.5% finished within the top 6
- Average 2.2 Top-12 Seasons in their career
- 37.5% Finish their career with 3+ Top-12 Seasons
Breakouts by Age
Dissecting the data by age, we see a slightly different pattern compared to our findings for Running Backs and Wide Receivers. While the highest concentration of breakouts for these two positions was at age 23, Tight End breakouts primarily occur at age 25 – a group that includes several elite players such as Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Jimmy Graham. Furthermore, age 25 seems to be the cutoff as 73.1% of breakouts occur prior to age 26. We do see a minor spike in breakouts at 27, though this group primarily consists of players like Dennis Pitta and Dustin Keller – Tight Ends who achieved the top-12 threshold only once in their careers. The outlier of the bunch is a player who you are likely very familiar with: Darren Waller, a converted wide receiver whose breakout was partially delayed due to off-field issues.
If we layer in draft capital, our findings are further confirmed as age 25 has the highest concentration of breakouts across each group. However, we do see that day one and two Tight Ends can break out earlier, potentially as early as age 22 or 23. Ironically, the earliest breakout in my sample size actually belongs to day three prospect Aaron Hernandez, who started his career with three straight TE1 seasons before off-field issues, unfortunately, ended his NFL career.
With this information in mind, we may need to temper our expectations for Gerrald Everett. Despite entering the league with early 2nd-round draft capital and elite athletic traits, he has mostly been a disappointment for fantasy managers. In fact, his highest PPR finish was last season, ranking as the TE20 in his lone campaign with the Seattle Seahawks. While he now joins an explosive Chargers offense, Everett would be a massive outlier if he were to break out in his sixth season at age 28. Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the opportunity in front of him as he will likely operate as the lead TE in a Justin Herbert-led offense.
Lastly, below are the average number of TE1 seasons based on breakout age. To no surprise, there is a clear correlation between early breakout age and career longevity. This is exactly why Noah Fant should still be valued highly in the dynasty community. While he might be receiving passes from Geno Smith in his first year with the Seahawks, his situation is not all that different from what he dealt with in Denver. In fact, despite the quarterback carousel early on in his career, he still managed to break out early at age 23 while producing two TE1 campaigns (PPR per game) in his first three seasons.
- Ages 21 – 23: 4.9 Career Top-12 Seasons
- Ages 24 – 26: 2.8 Career Top-12 Seasons
- Ages 27 and older: 1.9 Career Top-12 Seasons
Breakouts by Career Year and Experience
In the previous segment, we discovered that most Tight Ends break out at ages 23 and 25. Naturally, their draft age will influence that number as we have seen multiple elite Tight Ends – Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, and Mark Andrews to name a few – enter the NFL as slightly older prospects. However, despite their later breakout age, a majority of them broke out within their first three seasons. We see this clearly depicted above as 73.1% of breakouts in my sample size occurred within a player’s first three years in the league. Furthermore, 89.6% of Tight Ends broke out by the end of their fifth season. As a result, this debunks the notion that Tight Ends take longer than Wide Receivers and Running Backs to acclimate to the league. In fact, across all three skill positions, between 70 to 80% of breakouts occur within a player’s first three years.
Even when we split the sample size by draft capital, the sweet spot remains in years 2 and 3. Naturally, there will always be a couple of outliers similar to Delanie Walker, who broke out in his 8th season. Walker’s career was truly unique as he emerged at age 29 and still managed to produce five TE1 seasons in his career. On the other end of the spectrum, the only players in my sample size who broke out as rookies include Jeremy Shockey, Randy McMichael, John Carlson, Aaron Hernandez, and Jordan Reed.
Lastly, a theme that tends to transcend across all skill positions is that breakouts will rarely occur after a player switches teams. Among all breakout Tight Ends since 2000, 86.6% were still with the team that drafted them. Keep this in mind when selecting Hayden Hurst in redraft leagues, as he now approaches his age-29 season with his 3rd team in five seasons.
To close out this segment, highlighted below are the average career top-12 seasons based on breakout year. Surprisingly, the drop-off is not as drastic as we progress down the list. This would indicate that even if a player emerges later in their career, it is very possible they produce at least one more top-12 season before they retire. However, the ideal breakout age is clearly in years one and two, as that generally indicates sustained production for many years. This should only confirm what we already anticipate for Kyle Pitts going forward. Combining his elite prospect profile with his early NFL breakout, I would not be shocked if he ends his career as one of the most productive Tight Ends in recent history.
- Breakout in Years 1-2: 4.6 Career Top-12 Seasons
- Breakout in Years 3-4: 2.2 Career Top-12 Seasons
- Breakout in Years 5-6: 2.1 Career Top-12 Seasons
- Breakout in Years 7-10: 2.0 Career Top-12 Seasons
Potential Breakouts: Which Tight Ends Meet Our Thresholds?
To summarize, the most common breakout Tight End…
- Was drafted in Round 1 (88.9% hit rate) or Round 2 (44.4% hit rate)
- Is in the 21 – 25 age group
- Is currently within the first 3 years of their career
- Is currently still on the team that drafted them (86.6% of TE breakouts)
Which TEs fall into these categories heading into the 2022 season?
Pat Freiermuth had an impactful rookie year despite finishing as the TE16 in PPR points per game last season. Keep in mind that he started the year off slowly, averaging only 3.3 targets per game in his first six games. After their bye week, however, we saw his usage improve significantly as he nearly doubled his opportunities per game at 5.9 to close out the season. In that time span, he was the TE9 in PPR leagues (11.19 per game), while ranking as the TE7 in PPR points above expected (+1.15). And while there is some uncertainty regarding the quarterback play this season, Ben Roethlisberger set the bar fairly low last year as he ranked near the bottom in several efficiency and accuracy metrics. Therefore, if Freiermuth was able to produce with an inefficient Big Ben, I believe there is a path to a TE1 season even with Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett under center.
Cole Kmet is by far my favorite late-round TE target in redraft leagues this season. Despite only finishing as the TE21 in PPR points per game last year, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for a potential breakout campaign. In 17 games in 2021, Kmet was the TE11 in target share (17.2%) and TE12 in air yards share (16.7%), leading to the 12th highest Expected PPR value (9.26) at the Tight End position. In other words, based on his usage alone, Kmet should have finished as a TE1 last season. What ultimately hurt his fantasy output was his lack of red-zone production, scoring zero touchdowns despite seeing 94 opportunities. Expect his touchdown efficiency to regress closer to the mean this upcoming season, which should raise Kmet’s fantasy ceiling in 2022. In addition, he is now firmly entrenched as the second option for an offense that will likely play from behind most games. Therefore, if you strike out on some of the elite options at the TE position, waiting until the 9th or 10th round to draft Kmet is a very viable strategy.
Irv Smith Jr. is almost a perfect breakout candidate, as he meets nearly every criterion listed above except the “career year” threshold. Technically, Smith is in his fourth year with the Vikings, though he is only approaching his age-24 season as he entered the league as one of the youngest prospects in his class. And while last season could have been his breakout year after Kyle Rudolph was cut, a torn meniscus ended his season before he could even play a single game. With a new coaching staff heading into 2022, many expect the Vikings to implement a more pass-friendly and creative offense. And while Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are the presumed top two receiving options, Smith could slot in as the third target behind them. For dynasty purposes, this will be a pivotal season as this is the final year of his rookie contract. And considering players rarely break out on their second team, this might be Smith’s final opportunity to emerge for fantasy.