How Do We Fix the TE Position? Enter the ‘Power-T’ (Fantasy Football)
Kickers and D/ST aside, Tight End is likely the most frustrating position in fantasy. Beyond a few stalwarts – Robert Gronkowski and Travis Kelce historically, likely Mark Andrews and Kyle Pitts going forward – the position has a striking lack of depth. Most analysts that I know follow a similar strategy: either draft a juggernaut TE in the early rounds, or punt on the position until much, much later. This is broadly reasonable since, outside of the top guys, TEs are essentially a dart throw. The out-of-nowhere Dalton Schultz or Robert Tonyan 2020 seasons are fun, but nigh impossible to predict and are (usually) ephemeral.
In this article, I quantify the problem with this oft-maligned position and explore a couple of potential solutions. I did find one approach that works but – consider yourself warned – you probably won’t like it. All data comes from nflfastR.
What’s the Problem?
As I alluded to above, the TE position is the most skewed of the major fantasy football slots. While the top dogs at the other positions exhibit some significant skew, it’s nothing like the fall-off into the barren wasteland of TE irrelevance. In fact, this is a salient word choice: we essentially want more tight ends to be relevant, not just the Gronks and Kelces of the day.
Relevance can be measured in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a metric that considers a player’s performance against the replacement (average) level at their position, and converts this into fantasy wins. WAR is a concept that applies to a variety of real-life sports; it was introduced to Major League Baseball by Bill James in the 1980s, but disseminated across a wider variety of settings over time. Specifically, WAR has been popularized in fantasy football through the pioneering work Jeff Henderson on FantasyPoints.com as well as the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, and is featured by the likes of Pro Football Focus. I recently wrote an article diving further into the topic (On the WARpath: Understanding Performance Above Replacement) if you want more info on that statistic.
Let’s look at the top-84 WAR (first 7 rounds in a 12-team league) producers since 2011. You can think of this as the players that ‘added the most value’ over the last decade. The one drawback is that we don’t have a measure of ‘longevity’ (availability is an ability in football and fantasy), but this still gets at the core idea.
I’ve colored the TEs red, and the result is self-explanatory. If the four positions were equal, we would expect 21 TEs to make their way into the top-84. Instead, we see just nine. What’s more, while Gronk and Kelce both crack the top-5, there is a massive drop-off after until we get to George Kittle around 40.
Another important metric, which we will return to across the solutions presented here, are the number of ‘extra’ TEs that are started in a FLEX spot. They might not add a ton of WAR, but they are still ‘around’ in the sense that fantasy managers will start them in a given week. Assuming a starting lineup of QB/2RB/3WR/TE/2FLEX, and we see that just 0.5 TEs start in a FLEX spot in a 12-team league (under general assumptions). That means that every other year one unlucky team will have a TE in a FLEX, which sounds about right intuitively.
Let’s see, then, how we can make TEs relevant.
The most common solution to this problem is the TE Premium format. It comes in different shapes and sizes, but the version I have most often seen gives tight ends 1.5 points per reception in what is usually a Half-PPR format (don’t worry, using PPR for TEs in a Half-PPR format should have a similar result). This certainly makes TEs more high-powered, since a measly 4 catches and 40 yards will be good enough for 10.0 fantasy points. With hope in our hearts, lets see how the WAR shakes out:
Alas. Before we had nine TEs crack the top-84, and now we have just 10. What’s happening here?
The dynamic is best summed up by my fellow Footballers writer Michael Wenrich in his article on fixing the TE position: a rising tide lifts all boats.
It’s important to remember that WAR captures performance relative to the average at the position. While each TE is getting a huge reception bump, it’s the same reception bump that all of the other TEs are getting! This means that, while tight ends will see a jump in absolute scoring compared to QBs, RBs and WRs, their relative positional value within the TE landscape won’t change much. Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski certainly move up a bit (now #1 and #3 among all players) but we don’t see the effects we had hoped for across the position.
There is a bit of a silver lining, though, because of that jump compared to the other positions. On average, we now see 4.4 TEs started in FLEX spots across a 12-team league; in reality, that number will be higher because the top 12 TEs won’t be evenly distributed across teams. This is intuitive, and probably matches your experience in a TE-premium league: a lower-tier TE will be raised above a lower-tier RB or WR because of the Premium bump. The FLEX position essentially eliminates positional advantages, since multiple positions can be started in that slot!
Still, I’m not sure if I would classify this as a solution. It certainly gets more TEs ‘in the game’, but in a sad sort of way as the dregs of a roster (2nd FLEX). The waiver wire will certainly have less TEs available on it, but you’re not likely to change draft strategy that much. Let’s move to the next approach.
We can all agree that far more happens on the football field than is captured in fantasy data. While receptions, yards and touchdowns are the most important statistics, they don’t fully measure the impact a tight end has on a game. What if, then, we used more statistics to generate scoring for TEs? It’s possible that this will even the playing field; if certain players shine in more obscure categories, they will see a bump in value that wasn’t previously accounted for.
Specifically, we can add 0.25 points per target, 0.5 points per first down gained and 0.05 points per YAC (in addition to 0.1 points per yard). Let’s see if this added level of granularity improves the situation:
Nothing doing. We see a similar effect to TE premium, which makes sense, since this is a similar approach(we’re scoring TE performance more). The elite tight ends are now the most important players in all of fantasy, but there are still just 10 TEs in the top-84. Again, this is offset by more TEs being started in the FLEX (4.8 per league), since again RBs and WRs are not receiving this scoring boost. Still, this isn’t what we want, so let’s try our final approach…
This is essentially a ‘Super-FLEX’, but for TEs. I’ve used the ‘Power-T’ name to pay homage to actual football formations, where multiple tight ends are on the field at the same time. In this format, you start QB/2RB/3WR/2TE/2FLEX.
At first glance, this approach seems foolish. We have enough of a problem starting one tight end, so won’t it be worse if we add two? While it’s certainly hard to imagine starting 24 tight ends in a league, this could have a surprisingly helpful effect on the positional advantage at the position:
Voila! We have now seventeen tight ends in the top-84 WAR, essentially double the result for default scoring! What is happening here?
Fans of the Super-FLEX format – which allows for two starting QBs – understand this dynamic well. By adding depth at the position, more tight ends have relative positional value. Hunter Henry might not be great if you use the top-12 TEs as a measuring stick. However, when 24 tight ends are forced to be in play, Henry is a fantasy force (about top-50 in WAR over the last decade). This is because the replacement value at the position, or average points scored by your starting TEs, drops dramatically when fantasy managers are required to start lower-ranked tight ends.
As you might expect, in the Power-T format teams essentially never start a TE in a FLEX spot. This makes sense: you already have to start two tight ends, and it’s unlikely that you will find a third good enough to beat out a RB or WR at the FLEX. On the other side of the coin, the best TEs now become incredibly prolific. Gronk and Kelce are far and away the top two WAR producers, with Jimmy Graham landing at #6 overall. In a setting like this, Kyle Pitts and Mark Andrews would probably be two of the top three picks in a dynasty startup draft.
We can all agree that the TE position needs fixing, but it’s unclear just what that fix should be. I’ve showed that TE premium scoring, or even TE advanced scoring that considers more metrics, falls short of our goal of making more TEs relevant. There is one solution: the Power-T format, or having two TE slots on a roster.
This might feel completely misguided, but I urge you to consider it with a broader lens. Super-FLEX leagues with two starting QBs are gaining in popularity for exactly this reason: they make QBs more relevant. In fact, the established positions like RB and WR would probably be much less interesting if they were onesy positions! Somewhere along the way, fantasy football convention decided to start multiple RBs/WRs and just one single TE. This was probably to mirror an actual football team, or even just because of the apparent depth at the positions. Still, this decision had massive ripple effects: the RB and WR positions drive fantasy football, while the TE slot is mostly annoying.
I am, therefore, imploring you to consider trying the Power-T on for size. What feels un-intuitive will eventually lead to a Renaissance of the position, more complex and exciting draft strategy, and more relevance in the fantasy universe. Let’s make Power-T a movement!
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