An Injury History of Early Round TEs in Fantasy Football

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So far this August, I’ve published two articles looking at injury rates of wide receivers and running backs taken in Round 1 of fantasy football drafts. Here’s what my research has revealed so far:

  • Running backs taken in the first round tend to get injured more frequently than the wide receivers.
  • There was a total of 12 injuries to RBs selected in the first round out of a possible 27 players for a 44% injury rate.
  • In 10.6% of regular-season games, the wide receivers taken in the first round of drafts were out because of injury.

For the next installment of this article series, we turn our attention to the tight end position. If you listen to the Fantasy Footballers Podcast, then you understand that not many tight ends are drafted in the first round of drafts. Therefore, I decided to change the research focus to tight ends drafted in the first five rounds of fantasy drafts in order to get a more substantial sample size.

I looked back at the average draft position (ADP) over each of the last four seasons in PPR formats on Fantasy Football Calculator to see which tight ends were being selected in the first five rounds of drafts. Here’s what I found:

2018 (5): Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen 
(5): Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Greg Olsen, Jordan Reed, Jimmy Graham
2016 (3): Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed, Greg Olsen
2015 (5): Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce, Martellus Bennett

Now that we know which tight ends and how many were being selected in Round 1 of drafts from 2015-2018, let’s examine how many of these tight ends were injured and how many games each injured player missed.

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Tight end injuries in 2018 were highlighted by Greg Olsen’s foot and Rob Gronkowski’s lower back. Olsen re-broke the 5th metatarsal in his foot in 2018, the same injury that plagued him in 2017. After missing three games (four weeks with the bye), he returned but was never truly 100%, leading to a ruptured plantar fascia in Week 13 forced him to miss the rest of the year.

Gronk’s history of lower back problems and surgery to address a disc injury is well documented. Unfortunately, this type of surgery can lead to lingering issues, as we saw with Gronk in 2018. He missed three games on the season due to lower back spasms, tightness, and pain. In 2018, 40% of tight ends taken in Rounds 1-5 missed time because of injury.

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[lptw_table id=”160713″ style=”default”]

Travis Kelce missed one game in Week 17, but this wasn’t because of injury. With a playoff spot locked up, the starters did not play. Gronk missed just one game in 2017 due to a quadriceps contusion. Jordan Reed missed a significant chunk of time due to a high-grade hamstring strain and a chest contusion. Finally, Greg Olsen missed nine total games because of his troublesome foot. He suffered a Jones fracture, which required surgery and a significant amount of time away from the field. As discussed above, this injury presented a problem in 2018 as well. In 2017, 60% of tight ends drafted in the first five rounds missed time because of injury.

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Greg Olsen was able to play all 16 regular-season games, but the same was not true for Jordan Reed or Rob Gronkowski, two players who seriously disappointed fantasy owners in 2016. Reed missed four games with a concussion and a separated shoulder (AC joint sprain). The data here may be a bit misguided, as Reed was significantly impaired when attempting to come back from the AC joint injury. Yes, he gets credit for playing in the game, but he might as well have not even been active.

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Rob Gronkowski was a massive disappointment due to the fact that he only played in eight games. He missed time due to a hamstring strain in the preseason, which lingered into the regular season. Then, later in the year, he was dealing with a herniated disc in his lower back, causing nerve impingement. This injury subsequently required surgery. In 2016, 66% of tight ends drafted in the first five rounds missed time because of injury.

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Greg Olsen and Travis Kelce both played a full season. Rob Gronkowski missed one game due to a bone bruise in his knee, but he was healthy otherwise. 2015 was the Jimmy Graham injury – where we saw him go up for an attempted TD reception and rupture his patellar tendon in the process. He ended up missing five games after he was placed on injured reserve. Martellus Bennett also had a rough 2015 campaign, missing five games because of fractured ribs that eventually landed him on injured reserve. In 2015, 60% of tight ends drafted in Rounds 1-5 of fantasy drafts missed time because of injury.

What does the data tell us for 2019?

Compared to running backs and wide receivers, tight ends miss time more than any other offensive skill position. From the years 2015-2018, a total of 18 players were drafted in the first five rounds of fantasy football drafts. Of these 18 players, 10 missed regular-season games because of injury. In other words, 55% of tight ends drafted in Rounds 1-5 were out because of injury. Out of a possible 288 games (18 players x 16 games), injured tight ends missed a total of 53 games, a rate of 18.4%. This rate is similar to that of running backs but much more than that of wide receivers.

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Given these high injury rates, drafting a backup tight end late in drafts or closely watching the waiver wire may not be the worst idea. Tight ends are different than wide receivers in that they are more often to be engaged with a defender in a more physical way. They run block and pass block more often than wide receivers, and therefore engage more often in physical contact.

What does that mean for fantasy? If you’re going to draft a tight end early, there’s about a 50/50 chance that they miss time because of injury. We know wide receiver injury rates are lower, so if you are looking to mitigate injury risk, you may want to consider drafting a tight end who plays more like a wide receiver. Evan Engram, anyone?

Scared off by early TEs? Here are a few recommendations of Late-Round Fantasy TEs for 2019.

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