Using VORP to Assess a Tight End Wasteland (Fantasy Football)
The Who said it best in their aptly named song “Baba O’Riley” (???) with the lyrics, “Don’t cry, Don’t raise your eye, It’s only tight-end wasteland.” Well, it went something like that at least. While the song is associated with the angst teenagers feel towards the older generations, we can hijack it today for the angst we feel towards drafting tight ends in fantasy football.
Tight end is the most challenging position to draft correctly in fantasy (unless you grab Travis Kelce of course). The draft board will be littered with landmines and complete busts come the season’s end. The quest to navigate these perilous pitfalls begs the question: What measures can be taken to avoid them? This was the very inquiry that propelled my exploration, prompting me to delve into the realm of Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) as a starting point for my research.
Value over replacement (VORP) and wins above replacement (WAR) concepts were conceived by Bill James in the 1980s and popularized in the book Moneyball but certainly applicable in fantasy football contexts. VORP not only sounds cool but is also a great way to evaluate if a player is worth: 1) a high-value pick and 2) rostering at all. VORP was first used in baseball to demonstrate the contributions a hitter or pitcher makes for their team in comparison to a replacement-level player who is average. In short, can the team sign a free agent and get similar production out of them for less money? Fantasy football players can use it similarly to distinguish between a roster-worthy player and a player that can be sent to the waiver wire. Most years, the top player with the most VORP will end the season with around 15 to 20 points per game more than a replacement player. A replacement player is given a VORP of 0. The Top Free Agent (TFA) is what players are measured against to calculate their VORP. The equation for VORP is calculated as such:
Points per game Player A – Points per Game of TFA = Player A’s VORP
Now that we have some groundwork laid, let’s dive into the parameters of my research. The first thing that needs to be said is that this study is done with certain league settings in mind. The assumptions used here are a 1 QB, start 8, PPR, no tight-end premium, and single tight-end lineups. Some sickos love pain out there and play in two tight end leagues, so I want to make that clear before continuing as those settings would boost the TE VORP landscape. The dataset I used went back 10 years to 2013 and was used to chart out the VORP per game of all the major positions in fantasy football. Injuries and suspensions happen, so I felt it necessary to look at VORP per game as it paints a better picture of a week-to-week metric that can be used when making tough decisions in fantasy.
Looking At VORP By Position
Charted below are the four major position groups, looking at VORP per game vs their final rank finish.
As you can see, the TE and QB positions decline fast and drop below one VORP per game at the position rank of 16. That is a stark difference in comparison to the RB and WR positions that stay strong up until the positional rank of 46 and 48 respectively. Simply put, each team could have four running backs and wide receivers on their team that are starter worthy. Most likely, a few teams that hit well in the draft and waiver wire will have even more than that, though!
VORP Averages Over The Last 10 Years
|Finishing Position||10 yr Avg||% Difference|
The table above is a 10-year average VORP for the TE1 through the TE16. The TE1 is averaging 2.16 more VORP per game than the TE2, who is averaging 1.38 VORP per game more than the TE3. You can see why the slope in the charts falls so quickly! The TE12 (a starting-caliber fantasy TE) is averaging just 1.37 VORP per game. The TE12 in fantasy is barely above a replacement player which makes sense but leads me to question why I would ever have two tight-ends on my roster when there is so much value out there in the RB/WR market comparatively, and a replacement TE should always be available on the waiver wire.
This chart plots the four major positions all against each other. There is a large gap between where the TE/QB drop-off occurs and where the RB/WR drop-off happens. This is expected of course due to the QB and TE positions being onesies in most leagues, but the fact that RB and WR are 60 deep before the VORP hits zero is a bit stunning. The chart also shows that by TE18 the tight end well is completely dried up and there is no one past that point that should be on your roster because you can easily grab a replacement off waivers and get similar value. That means 120 RBs/WRs are more valuable than TE19. To me, that screams DON’T DRAFT TWO TIGHT ENDS! But what can we use to help us decipher when to spend our precious draft picks on the TE position?
Using VORP To Shape Our TE Thoughts
Maybe Average Draft Position (ADP) can help us out a bit here. The fantasy football community has gotten quite sharp over the past few years and ADPs are sharper than ever…right? The high-level answer is simple, yes, but when you dig a bit deeper there are still so many inefficiencies. That is to be expected when we are all just playing a game of chance and probabilities, but can we quantify the ability to correctly pick a top-12 tight end in the draft?
Using the 10-year dataset previously mentioned, I looked at where a tight end was drafted positionally (the first tight end taken would be TE1, etc.) versus where they finished. If that tight end pick resulted in a positional rank of TE12 or better then that pick was credited as a “Hit.” The results are incredibly jarring in comparison to other positions ADP vs finish.
Finding A Top-12 TE by Positional ADP (Past 10 years)
|Positional ADP||Hit Rate||Best Finish|
The tight ends being taken first off of draft boards are boasting a stout 100% hit rate over the past 10 years (thank you Travis Kelce, you sweet prince). That is to say, the first TE drafted has ended up as a top-12 TE (TE5 being the worst) 100% of the time over the past 10 years in fantasy football. That is pretty darn good, but thank goodness because that high of draft capital not ending up as a starting TE would be dreadful for your team. Where this hit rate calculation gets interesting is TE4 (looking at you George Kittle) in ADP. 20%! The fourth tight end drafted is only a top-12 tight end 20% of the time. That is mind-boggling and will pretty much ensure that your team is dust that year. You may recover, but the opportunity cost to get the TE4 this year is your team passing up on players such as J.K. Dobbins, Michael Pittman, and Treylon Burks. For a 20% hit rate, it may be worth it to wait until later in the draft. While it’s not to suggest that George Kittle cannot emerge as a league-winning tight end this year, it’s more about illustrating the unpredictable nature of drafting tight ends. The TE4 has a worse hit rate than the TE16 over the past 10 years. In light of this uncertainty, why not opt to wait until later rounds in the draft to select one? After all, we’re all taking chances and essentially flipping coins once we get past the third TE drafted.
VORP + ADP
Now let’s combine our research on VORP and ADP into a strategy that may prove useful in upcoming drafts. The VORP table that was provided earlier shows that around the TE7 is where a precipitous drop starts to occur on a per-game basis. The average drops by half a point to TE8 and another half a point to TE9. From there it continuously falls until it settles barely above one VORP point per game at TE12. Looking through the VORP landscape as a whole, the 10-year average of 2.02 points per game for the TE9 would equate to the RB44 or WR49. That leads me to believe that the ideal strategy when approaching the Tight-End Wasteland is to grab a top-three guy or punt on the position entirely. Does one truly wish to use an 8th-round pick on a TE9 that, if he hits his positional rank value, contributes the same VORP to your team as the RB44 does? David Njoku is a fine player, but if he becomes the TE9 this year then historically speaking we are getting RB44 production from him. The opportunity cost surrounding that pick is just too high for me for that type of VORP production.
TE Drafting Strategies
Now to wrap it all up and put a bow on it. After researching and analyzing this topic, my final thoughts on drafting tight ends lead me to two distinct strategies. The first approach involves targeting a top-tier tight end within the early rounds of the draft, recognizing their potential to deliver significant value and impact on a fantasy football team. By securing one of the elite options, such as Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews, or TJ Hockenson, owners can gain a consistent advantage in a position notorious for its scarcity.
On the other hand, the alternative strategy revolves around waiting until the latter part of the draft to acquire a tight end. This approach acknowledges the inherent uncertainty surrounding the position and the similar Value Over Replacement Player contributions between mid-tier tight ends and other positions like running backs or wide receivers available in those rounds. By employing this tactic, fantasy managers can prioritize more critical positions early on and focus on securing tight-end during the later stages of their drafts.
It’s crucial to note that unless the league settings make having backup TEs advantageous, having more than one tight end on a fantasy team may not be ideal. Given the limited roster spots in most leagues and the nature of the tight-end position, it is generally more advantageous to allocate those resources to other positions that offer higher potential returns.
In contemplating these strategies and considering the intricacies of drafting tight ends, I am reminded again of The Who and their timeless song “Baba O’Riley.” Much like the lyrics encourage us not to cry or raise our eyes in the face of a teenage wasteland, we too can approach the tight end wasteland with resilience and adaptability. Whether we choose to seize an elite tight end early or patiently navigate the draft to find value later, understanding VORP and making informed decisions will ultimately shape our path to fantasy football success.