How to Spot a League Winner in 2022: TEs (Fantasy Football)

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The phrase “league winner” gets bandied about a lot in fantasy football circles, often carelessly. Sometimes, analysts use this phrase as nothing more than an attention-getter to hype some mediocre player they love. But when used properly, there is truth to this concept – the idea that one single player can dominate for your team enough to nearly guarantee, on his own, a championship for your fantasy team.

Of course, no player can truly win a fantasy championship alone. Even Christian McCaffrey’s historic 2019 season, where he scored a ridiculous 413.2 fantasy points, was only enough to get 48% of his managers into fantasy championships (still an absurd number, by the way). So, fantasy managers still must put together a solid team around a “league winner”, work the waiver wire, and play the matchups. Nevertheless, rostering some players undoubtedly gives fantasy teams an increased chance at a fantasy championship, just like McCaffrey nearly gave his managers a 50-50 shot in 2019.

Last year, I wrote this series and got a lot of great feedback – and the people have demanded its return! I am happy to append my research from last year with 2021’s numbers. Rather than re-post all the numbers in the previous article’s tables, I will simply provide the link here, which you can use to look at it again.

Redefining a TE League Winner

From my analysis, league-winning players typically separate themselves from the pack. That means that the top 1-3 players each year, at any given offensive position, generally score at least 30 points more than their next closest competitor, where the end-of-year rankings start to bunch up. That’s good! We want our “league winner” not just to score a few more points than RB3 or WR2; we want them to score way more points. That means these types of players really do have “league winning upside”.

Last year, we set an arbitrary 200 fantasy point threshold to determine which tight ends were league winners. That resulted in eight league-winning tight ends from 2016-2020 (see list here). In 2021, two more names/instances eclipsed 200 fantasy points: Mark Andrews and Travis Kelce. Like before, these two players truly separated themselves from the pack. In fact, Mark Andrews scored a whopping 31 more points than Travis Kelce, the TE2. Meanwhile, Kelce himself was no slouch, scoring 47 (!!!) more fantasy points than 2021’s TE3, Dalton Shultz. 2021 confirmed the previous year’s finding – that the tippy top TEs, those true league winners, really separate themselves as incredible performers. We want to find that again.

The better news is that 2021 confirmed that 200 fantasy points are a great threshold for segregating league winners from “the rest”, at least at the TE position. That means we are trying to find TEs in 2022 who will score 200 fantasy points. We aren’t so concerned about ADP and beating the market at the TE position because we need volume at the TE position to find a league winner, and likely high-volume earners typically have high draft costs already baked in. Last year, Travis Kelce was picked in the first round and delivered. Nevertheless, Andrews was the real diamond in the rough, being drafted in the 5th round at TE5. So, we will hopefully find a TE at a value, but if a league-winning TE must be drafted highly, so be it.

You may recall that I analyzed a ton of data last year. In fact, after analyzing twenty-six possible statistical factors that explain why some instances resulted in a league-winning season, I discovered that:

  • A league-winner TE will be the number one target on his team. Typically, less than 20% of the league has a tight end as their target leader, so we have limited choices.
  • A league-winning TE has more “skill” than “talent”. That means we can and should ignore those talent metrics that were so important for WRs, like Y/RR, T/RR, RACR, and SPARQ scores, and instead focus on age and total air yards. The best TEs will run a diverse route tree that includes numerous targets and a healthy amount of air yards, thereby demonstrating developed skill rather than raw talent.
  • League Winning TEs are usually on more pass-heavy teams. A TE on a pass-happy team is more likely to rack up higher target and air-yard numbers.
  • A League Winning TE won’t be a first-year breakout and probably won’t be a rookie. League Winning TEs are established.

There is far more discussion in last year’s article that resulted in these summary bullet points. I encourage you to read it again because the discussion from last year’s article was really important to understand how to spot a league-winning tight end. You may not like my picks at the end of this article, but you can still use my findings to find someone else who fits the bill (e.g. Dalton Schultz?).

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That crazy, in-depth analysis from last year will not be necessary again here because 2021 simply confirmed my findings from last year’s article. Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews nearly fit the bill perfectly, and both were mentioned in last year’s article as potential league winners (although Mark Andrews was not picked – I will get into that momentarily). Crucially, Andrews led his team, and the NFL among TEs, in targets and air yards. Kelce also had a fair share of targets and air yards, but Tyreek Hill had more targets and air yards.

In view of Kelce’s accomplishment, perhaps we need to rethink bullet point 1 from above? Yet, Andrews led his team in targets and had a far better year than Kelce, so clearly being the target leader on your team has incredible value (only a few TEs did it in 2021: Zach Ertz and Andrews). Maybe I overlooked something else? I considered analyzing TPRR for the TE position, but TPRR for TEs has a lower R2 leaguewide than the WR position, and more importantly, Kelce posted the lowest TPRR and ADT of his career in 2021, and that didn’t stop him from being incredible. So again, TPRR measures talent, not skill, and we need stats that measure skill to unearth a TE league winner. Air yards and team target share still seem to be our best bets.

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After some reanalysis, I think we still have it right. True, it didn’t lead to great results last year – I picked Kelce, Waller, and Hockenson, and Hock and Waller disappointed pretty badly. I will note that I mentioned Andrews as a candidate over Hockenson. Here is what I said:

Mark Andrews might be the safer pick here, given that he has eclipsed 900 air yards twice in his career, but Andrews will not be the primary focus of the offense, and leading the Ravens in targets is a bit like being the fastest Honda Camry in a Formula 1 race.

I certainly have some egg on my face for that take and the bad analogy. (I won’t apologize for loving Formula 1 though.)

I will say, nobody saw the Ravens throwing the ball 611 times in 2021, good for 9th in the league. Had you told me that the Ravens would be even in the top half in pass attempts, Andrews would have been my pick way over Hockenson stuck on a crappy team and offense. (also, my Blue Kool-Aid colored glasses may have blinded my vision). Most projected the Ravens for bottom-5 in pass attempts, given Lamar Jackson‘s ability to run the ball and historical trends. Clearly, I seriously considered the true TE league winner, but they don’t give awards for choosing the wrong choice after seriously considering the better choice. Undeterred, I am supremely confident in my pick this year.

Who is the 2022 League Winner?

Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews are again great choices, but both will cost you a 2nd round draft pick. I am particularly confident that Travis Kelce can improve on last year’s output, especially after we learned that he battled a stinger injury for much of the year, holding down his performance slightly. Once he overcame that issue, he made serious noise in the playoffs.

Kelce is 33, which has been an age when productive tight ends begin to decline (see Tony Gonzalez). However, Kelce is almost certain to lead the Chiefs in targets this year now that Tyreek is gone. Team target leaders are the main thing we look at in this exercise, and Kelce clearly fits that bill, perhaps better than he has for several seasons.

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The same can be said of Andrews. The Ravens lost Hollywood Brown, and they are hoping to fill some of his production with Rashod Bateman. Perhaps Bateman dominates, but he didn’t demonstrate a ton last year, and certainly not enough to surpass the target demands of Mark Andrews.

Still, neither are my pick for the TE league winner. Both are capable of exceeding 200 points but replicating the 240+ fantasy point season Mark Andrews had last year is tough, especially at their ADPs. Instead, the person who is going to accomplish that feat is:

Kyle Pitts

Kyle Pitts is my “My Guy”. He’s my pick for the TE1 at the end of the year. He’s so, so good. Do I really need to say anything else?

Pitts is all but guaranteed to lead the Falcons in targets, with all respect to Drake London. How do I know that? Well, Pitts already did it once in his career, something very few TEs can accomplish, and that feat is almost never accomplished by a rookie tight end. In addition, Pitts was 5th among TEs in targets, and most importantly, second in air yards. He had more air yards than Travis Kelce on 25 fewer targets. Now why is a TE obtaining a 10.8 aDOT? Because Kyle Pitts doesn’t play the traditional tight end position. He’s much closer to a wide receiver. Just watch where he is lined up in this highlight from the preseason below, and watch how he runs the route.

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He’s lined up like a wide receiver, not an in-line blocking TE. Then he jukes a cornerback on his way for a HUGE gain while obtaining a TON of air yards. That was a WR route, and Pitts is primed for WR scoring. What an advantage at the TE position! It’s like playing Justin Jefferson in your TE slot.

What’s most amazing about Pitts season in 2021 is that he had huge air yards numbers, huge target numbers, and only scored one TD. Rarely has a number screamed positive regression more than this one. Accordingly, I’ll conservatively project Pitts for 8-9 TDs on crazy volume.

Look, I am so confident that Kyle Pitts is about to be the league winning TE that I am not even offering a second option to hedge my bets. It’s Pitts or bust for me.

You want a bold take? Here’s bold: Kyle Pitts won’t just be a league-winning TE, he will score more fantasy points than Mark Andrews in 2021.

And I’ve heard enough of the Marcus Mariota slander. The Falcons’ QB situation is not why Kyle Pitts isn’t going to be a league winner. Mariota has supported a robust TE before – Delanie Walker‘s 2015 season was 94 catches, 1088 yards and six touchdowns. Oh and by the way, 2015 was Walker’s 10th season in the NFL at age 31! If Mariota can support a 31 year old TE in this way, he can support Pitts far surpassing those numbers with Pitts’ superior talent.

Kyle Pitts is my only league winning tight end, and I will draft him anywhere I can.

Comments

Nathan Gahan says:

So here’s my contention for Pitts and it comes down to the team passing metrics. As you’ve stated the more a team passes the more likely they are to produce a league winner and you’re arguing they’re gonna pass a ton but in 2021 they were 19th in pass attempts due to having the 3rd fewest team plays and last in neutral pace (the new Arthur Smith offense). There’s definitely correlation between how good a team is and pass attempts and they’re going to be even worse combined with their more mobile QBs throwing less themselves. In order to overcome their lack of RZ presence and poor QB quality they’d need to rank much higher in pass attempts for Pitts to make up for it but that just doesn’t seem to be in the cards. That’s my concern.

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