Commissioner’s Guide: Can We Fix Fantasy Football’s TE Problem?

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If you have played fantasy football for more than a few seasons, you’ve likely recognized the trend focused on making changes to the “onesie” positions. Be it eliminating kickers, “nerfing” scoring for the PK or D/ST, or implementing Superflex/2QB requirements, the focus is to make these positions with only one required starter more, or less, impactful on the outcome of weekly fantasy football results.

A few years ago, an overwhelming number of leagues were won or lost when Minnesota PK Blair Walsh scored upwards of 23 fantasy points by making five field goals, including two from beyond 50 yards, and adding four PATs. That performance in championship week led to a dramatic increase in leagues eliminating the required PK position from fantasy football, due to the “luck” centered around PK scoring. Additionally, where early trends were to increase scoring for kickers by using scoring systems that awarded points based on the distance of the FG, leagues that do still have kickers have “nerfed” the scoring to bring down their impact on fantasy matchups. Leagues have done the same thing with team defenses, choosing to reduce the point scoring potential to limit their ability to sway an outcome on the back of one or two big, unpredictable plays.

More recently, the fantasy football industry has become more and more accepting of the Superflex/2QB format, which is designed to drive up the value of the QB position, after years of fantasy owners completely ignoring the QB position early in drafts, in favor of “streaming”, I.E picking up and dropping QBs each week in pursuit of favorable matchups.

This brings us to our final remaining “onesie” position, the Tight End. The TE position in fantasy football is a fickle spot. Most fantasy football players have a love/hate relationship with the TE position, leading to a very divergent draft strategy around the position. Some owners LOVE their elite TEs and will spend early draft picks on the few elite players. Other owners will completely punt the position, electing to fill their roster with upside players at all the other positions.

What’s the Problem?

The reason for these two divergent draft strategies of the past few seasons is being driven by the ever-widening gap in scoring and statistical production at the position between the few top elite players and “the field”. Over the past few seasons, a distinct gap in fantasy scoring has developed. Where a more consistent linear decline used to exist, TE scoring is now, more than ever, a battle between the haves and the have nots.

2020’s third-highest scoring TE didn’t break 700 receiving yards. In relation to TE scoring from 2012-2019, this past year’s third-ranked TE would have finished no higher than TE4 (2017) and as low as TE10 (2013). In fact, the score posted by this year’s TE3 would have finished as TE8 on average from 2012-2019. 2020 also saw a very clear tier of TEs scoring very similarly, with TE3-6 being separated by less than 10 fantasy points.

While you might think that this was just a down year for the TE position, as a whole, it was right in line with the rest of the data set (2012-2020). 2020 was actually above average in yards, receptions, and TDs thrown to TEs. The problem is that more TEs than ever are being targeted in the passing game, while total targets to the TE position have remained flat. If you’re a fan of clichés, this is a clear example of “more mouths to feed”. The same volume of targets is being spread around a larger group of players.

The Mid-Level TE has Taken the Biggest Hit

Using average scoring at each TE rank, the average TE3 from 2012-2019 scored 230 FF points (full PPR). In 2020, TE3 scored over 53 points below that average. In 2020, TE3-TE11 all scored below their similar finish ranks average from 2012-2020. Conversely, TE12-TE21 outscored their historical average. For fantasy football players, this created a perfect storm of the under-performing top-ranked players who, on a weekly basis, were likely no better for your fantasy team than a TE off the waiver wire.

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The 2017 season appears to be the one that kicked off this trend of declining performance for the mid-level TE. Using the same 2012-2020 data, we saw the following split in the average number of TEs to achieve these statistical thresholds:

Statistical Threshold 2012-2016 2017-2020 Variance
500+ Receiving Yards 19.4 16.8 -2.7
750+ Receiving Yards 8.0 4.3 -3.8
50+ Receptions 17.2 12.8 -4.5
75+ Receptions 4.6 3.0 -1.6
50+ Targets 29.6 24.5 -5.1
75+ Targets 18.2 12.5 -5.7
100+ Targets 7.2 5.0 -2.2

Using some high-level assumptions, fantasy football players have lost approximately 4-5 “fantasy relevant” TEs since 2016. Using the 500 and 750-yard thresholds and 50 receptions represents TEs scoring 5-8 points per game. With low receptions and yardage, fantasy players must rely on TEs scoring TDs. Simply scoring a TD has become the threshold for a TE being a top-12 weekly option. What we’re seeing while viewing the entire position is that more players are being targeted at a low volume, but those targets still lead to TDs, making all but the 2-3 elite TEs completely TD dependent. A great example of this was Robert Tonyan’s 2020 season and TE4 finish – he tied Travis Kelce to lead the league in TDs with 11, but caught 50% fewer passes and record 60% fewer yards. His eight starter-worthy games averaged 10.5 more points per game than his bust games, which includes three games with less than 3 PPR points.

I view weekly performances a little bit differently than most fantasy outlets and analysts. Looking over the entire season’s data, I find what the average 12th ranked score is and then apply that to each week as my starting TE threshold. Some weeks, there may be 14 or 15 “starting” TEs, other weeks there may only be eight (such as during bye weeks). The goal of that analysis is to see weekly performances that were worthy of starting throughout the season. I don’t believe a player should get credit for a “TE1” game just because they finished TE12 with six points when the very next week they scored 14 points but ended up TE13.

In 2020, the top 24 TEs (minus the two elite outliers of Travis Kelce and Darren Waller) averaged just 6.5 “starter-worthy” weekly finishes, with no one exceeding eight such performances. That same grouping of TEs averaged 8 bust games (scoring below the threshold to be a “flex” starter). 2020’s TE3, Logan Thomas, had the same eight starts and eight busts as TE6 Mark Andrews and TE18 Jared Cook.

Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

What Should We Do for 2021?

While still an unpopular idea, eliminating the required TE position from fantasy football is a reasonable way to fix this problem. The argument will be made that this drastic disparity forces owners to make a draft-day decision; pay up for the elite talent or suffer through a season of dud games. If you do not have one of the elite-3 (Kelce, Kittle, Waller), you can assume that you are going to score less than 10 PPR points at the TE position in half of your games. The good news is that, in most weeks, you will be playing another manager with the same odds of a dud game at the TE position.

Now, eliminating the required TE position is not the same as leagues eliminating Kickers. Instead of requiring a TE, simply make that roster spot another flex position. In most league hosting platforms, you can also make a WR/TE only Flex.

In 2020, Travis Kelce scored like a top-5 WR, while Darren Waller performed at the level of a top-10 WR. But here’s the gap: TE3-TE6 were all grouped together, equivalent to WRs 42-46. While Travis Kelce was performing like Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins, the seasons TE3 (Logan Thomas) was performing like Michael Gallup or T.Y. Hilton.

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Here’s a fun comparison chart to see which WR your 2020 TE was comparable to:

It’s Time to Replace the Required TE with a Pass Catcher Flex (WR/TE)

Most fantasy leagues will require 2 or 3 WRs while allowing another in the flex position. This results in roughly 35-40 starting WRs in most leagues. Requiring fantasy managers to start a single TE is like requiring most of your league players to start a 5th WR. The reality is that the TE position has become a hindrance to general league enjoyment. It’s no fun to sit back on Sundays hoping you get at least 5-6 points from a position. It’s time to remove the required TE and replace it with a WR/TE “pass catcher flex”.

Comments

Kevin Nale says:

Blake. TE premium wouldn’t fix the issue if top heavy TEs. It makes the elite more elite and drives up their value relative to other positions as well. It does however help level out drafting decisions especially when combined with superflex. One of my fav formats.

Brian says:

An interesting thought but sometimes we can over correct issues that aren’t really issues. The market corrects itself. If we ever reach a point when the top two or three picks in a redraft league are TEs, because the elites are that dominant, then an adjustment could be made. We are nowhere near that point. If you want to use an early pick to draft a TE that is your prerogative. If you choose to punt TE that too is a choice you make. Based on the ADP of the top three, everyone in the league will have the option to draft one of them before passing them over. Should every league boot kickers? Yes. Grouping TEs with Ks in an article, however loosely, isn’t accurate.

If you like the added flex idea just add it without dropping TEs. The more players you start the more deep and diverse lineups will be and the more fun the league is. Heck add two more flex spots making those 7-12 picks even more important. The scoring difference between elite TEs vs mid to low range TEs makes those first two rounds more interesting. Drop TEs and even more RBs will be picked in the first two rounds. That isn’t anyone’s goal.

Blake Wilson says:

Question for everyone. Do you think TE premium scoring helps rectify this at all, or does it increase the disparity between the Top 3 and the field too much?

This is something my league is considering, but I am worried it won’t have the desired effect that others think it will.

Kyle says:

Excellent Article. As a Kelce owner in dynasty, I would hate this change… but I will be bringing the switch to flex up for a vote in our redraft league this year.

Mitch Aldrich says:

We did this last year in my league. It works out much better!

Kieran Reddy says:

I like this idea!

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