How to Spot a Fantasy Football League Winner: TEs
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 McCaffery’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 McCaffery nearly gave his managers a 50-50 shot in 2019.
From my analysis of the past five years, 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”.
In this series, I define “league winners” for each of RB, WR, QB, and TE, I analyze historical league winning seasons at all four positions, and I use history to try and spot league winners for 2021. I can’t wait to take you along for the journey. I hope you enjoy the series, and if you missed the league-winner RB article or the league winner WR article, go back and read those too!
Defining a League Winning Tight End
As I said above, I studied the fantasy finishes of the tight end position over the last six years. I wanted to find players who stood out, not just finished TE1 overall, but player(s) who separated themselves from the crowd. What I found was that very few tight ends hit the 200-fantasy point threshold (in 0.5 PPR scoring), and those who did separate themselves from the rest of the top 12 tight ends. Thus, this threshold worked quite well in establishing an objective definition of a league-winning tight end.
By setting that 200-fantasy point threshold, I was able to generate eight instances of a league-winning wide receiver in the past 6 years, which also “felt about right” (about 1-2 per year).
This is our set of league winners. Now let’s see if we can find out why these players ended up as league winners.
Historical Analysis of League Winning Tight Ends
Now that we have a nice definition and a decent sample size, we can start to look at these players to decide what is important in predicting fantasy league winners.
In my research leading up to this article, I generated a list of twenty-six possible statistical or other factors that explain why these eight instances, represented by six different tight ends, resulted in a league-winning season. Those twenty-six factors include catches, targets, yards, ADP, team wins, team passes, offensive plays, run-pass ratio, QB teammate’s fantasy finish, snap share, age, touchdowns, air yards, aDOT, RACR (Receiver Air Conversion Ratio), YAC/reception, target share, team rank in targets, red-zone targets, team targets to TE, targets to TE ranking, average separation, Y/RR (yards per route run), T/RR (targets per routes run), SPARQ score, and Pass blocking %. In other words, I analyzed a ton of data, so much data in fact that it doesn’t fit nicely onto one chart.
|League Winning TEs||Fantasy points||Catches||Targets||Yards||ADP|
|Jordan Reed (2015)||200.7||87||114||952||178|
|Rob Gronkowski (2015)||219.6||72||120||1176||10|
|George Kittle (2018)||214.7||88||136||1377||141|
|Zach Ertz (2018)||222.3||116||156||1163||40|
|Travis Kelce (2018)||243.1||103||150||1336||28|
|Travis Kelce (2019)||205.8||97||136||1229||18|
|Travis Kelce (2020)||260.3||105||145||1416||21|
|Darren Waller (2020)||225.1||107||145||1196||64|
|League Winning TEs||Wins||Plays||Run-Pass Ratio||Team Targets to TE %||Targets to TE Ranking||Passes||QB Fantasy Finish|
|Jordan Reed (2015)||9||1011||0.548961||0.249||10||555||8|
|Rob Gronkowski (2015)||12||1050||0.599048||0.271||5||629||2|
|George Kittle (2018)||4||1003||0.530409||0.286||3||532||16|
|Zach Ertz (2018)||9||1037||0.577628||0.357||1||599||15|
|Travis Kelce (2018)||12||996||0.585341||0.31||2||583||1|
|Travis Kelce (2019)||12||976||0.590164||0.277||6||576||4|
|Travis Kelce (2020)||14||1057||0.596026||0.274||7||630||4|
|Darren Waller (2020)||8||1036||0.531853||0.33||2||551||13|
|League Winning TEs||Snap Share||Age||Touchdowns||Total Air Yards||RACR||YAC/reception||aDOT|
|Jordan Reed (2015)||0.66||25||11||752.4||1.265284||5.6||6.6|
|Rob Gronkowski (2015)||0.84||26||11||1308||0.899083||7.6||10.9|
|George Kittle (2018)||0.88||25||5||1033.6||1.332237||9.9||7.6|
|Zach Ertz (2018)||0.92||28||8||1154.4||1.00745||3.2||7.4|
|Travis Kelce (2018)||0.95||29||10||1395||0.957706||5.6||9.3|
|Travis Kelce (2019)||0.92||30||5||1292||0.951238||4.2||9.5|
|Travis Kelce (2020)||0.82||31||11||1363||1.038885||5.6||9.4|
|Darren Waller (2020)||0.92||28||9||1174.5||1.018306||5.6||8.1|
|League Winning TEs||Target %||Team Rank in Targets||Y/RR||T/RR||SPARQ||Pass Blocking %|
Finally, I plotted each of the twenty-six factors against their fantasy points scored (and calculated the R2 of each plot) and also calculated the average value of each column from above. I am going to use the term R2 quite a bit below – without getting too deep into the mathematics, just understand that R2 is basically a measurement representing variance. We can use it to measure how closely two sets of data (e.g. targets and fantasy points) correlate with each other linearly.
Here is what I found:
- League-winning TEs are always the number one target on their team. I suppose this isn’t particularly shocking – a league-winning pass-catcher, generally, is always his team’s primary target. But still, it’s pretty rare that we find something that always happens in fantasy football. Also, this is far more actionable information for tight ends than wide receivers because far fewer NFL teams have a tight end as the player receiving the most targets.
- Unfortunately, being the number one target as a tight end on an NFL team is not a guarantee that a tight end will be a league winner. There were several instances in the past six years where a tight end led his team in targets but still didn’t eclipse the 200 fantasy point threshold (e.g. Evan Engram (2019), Zach Ertz (2019), George Kittle (2019), Darren Waller (2019), Mark Andrews (2019), Jared Cook (2018), Jordan Reed (2018), Rob Gronkowski (2018), just to name a few). So, looking for a tight end who is likely to be his team’s number one target is a requirement, but something more is necessary to achieve league-winning status.
- In the Wide Receiver version of this article, we learned that team-level metrics simply don’t matter to elite WRs – they produce on any offense because they are so good. The same cannot be said for Tight Ends. Some team-level metrics mattered quite a bit, such as team plays, run-pass ratio, and particularly pass blocking. This make sense because we don’t get fantasy points when a tight end blocks. We want our tight ends rarely blocking on passing plays. Looking back on it, I probably should have gathered OL ranking for all these players. There is a possibility that highly skilled TEs blocked more when offensive line play is weaker. I decided against grabbing this data because I think the more likely outcome would be increased 2-TE sets rather than a team using their best passing target to pass block more often. Also, this quandary would be best-studied league-wide, not among league winners. In summary, I am going to disregard the pass blocking data – there are just too many other factors to consider here.
- QB play looks like it matters, but this is somewhat skewed by Travis Kelce being associated with Patrick Mahomes for three of our eight instances. The Kelce-Mahomes multi-year combo decreases our already small sample size. That said, there is clear evidence that being tied to a mediocre QB is not a death sentence, with Waller being tied to Derek Carr last year, and, most egregiously, George Kittle having his monster season with the Frankenstein QB tandem of Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard. Average QBs can support superstar TEs, it just happens less often, which is exactly the same finding we found with WRs.
- ADP correlated quite well with our league-winning set. That means that the market is generally pretty good as seeing league-winning tight ends coming, particularly since the highest-scoring years correlate quite well with the highest fantasy scorers. That bodes well for Travis Kelce this year, who is being drafted very highly (often 1st round). It also means that George Kittle and Darren Waller‘s higher draft status is also appropriate. However, we can look beyond the first few rounds because our average league winning TE ADP was pick 62 (round 6 in a 12 team league)
- Air Yards correlated very strongly with our league winners (see graph below). Tight Ends are less likely to rack up yardage after the catch, so the more air yards, the better for tight ends. Note: Total air yards did a better job capturing success for tight ends than aDOT because total air yards capture target totals, which also correlated quite strongly. We want a TE on pace to accumulate 1150 air yards with 100 targets. (Every league winner, except one, had over 100 targets).
- A lot of the “talent” metrics that mattered for WRs didn’t matter much here. RACR, target %, Y/RR, T/RR, and SPARQ score all were inconsequential. Compared to Total Air Yards, these talent metrics were almost irrelevant. Total Air Yards, which captures aDOT and targets, is a reflection of player “skill”, not talent. Our league winner in 2021 likely has more “skill” than “talent”.
- Touchdowns and red-zone opportunities didn’t matter nearly as much as I presumed. Two of our league winners reached that 200 point threshold with only 5 touchdowns. That tells us there is more than one way to climb this mountain (either with high reception totals or high TD totals (or, obviously, both).
- Age was an interesting metric in that the youngest candidate was 25. This does not bode well for Kyle Pitts in 2021. Still, our “skill” over “talent” lesson from above helps explain why younger TEs are not likely to finish as a league winner. Skill must be developed through experience in the NFL game. Rookies, like Kyle Pitts, may have lots and lots of talent, but they lack the wily veteran skillset that appears to be necessary to become a TE league winner.
- None of these league-winning seasons came from nowhere. All of these eight players had “breakout seasons” before their league-winning season. We are not likely to find a league-winning TE season without some previous NFL success.
I know that’s a lot to take in, but I had to “show my work”. I will try to distill what I found into something more digestible.
- 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. This data point is the primary reason why Robert Tonyan and Tyler Higbee can’t be league winners in 2021 – there is no chance either of them will be their team’s #1 target.
- 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 is probably drafted higher than most TEs, but doesn’t necessarily come from the top two or three rounds. However, the higher a TE is drafted, the higher our chances of scoring a league-winning TE at the draft because the market is generally pretty good at predicting these league winners.
- A League Winning TE won’t be a first-year breakout and probably won’t be a rookie. League Winning TEs are established. That means Noah Fant and Cole Kmet are unlikely to be this year’s league winner because they have never shown it before. Also, sorry Kyle Pitts…
Who is the 2021 League Winner?
I probably sound like a broken record here because, yet again, the top drafted option, Travis Kelce, is the most likely league winner in 2021. Can we really doubt this guy anymore? He’s finished at the top of the position for so many consecutive years that it’s almost a joke to pick anyone else. Travis Kelce is worth a 1st round draft pick. Yes, his age is getting up there, but he has so much skill that it won’t matter. Kelce checks all our boxes: #1 target on his team, high air yards and targets, tied to a top-tier passing offense. While I am 100% confident that Travis Kelce will again surpass 200 fantasy points (unless injured), there have been several years where other TEs surpassed the 200 fantasy point threshold. So, let’s look a little deeper.
(Note: I think George Kittle will be fine. The only reason he’s not on this list is that there is a small chance that Brandon Aiyuk out targets him. A QB change to Trey Lance should have no effect – Kittle has played through QB changes and excelled. He is still worth a high draft pick, and has a good chance to also be a league winner).
Darren Waller surely will continue his insane target share on the Raiders in 2021. Waller’s 2020 season represented the highest target share of any TE in our league-winning set. He demands the ball, he’s the focal point of the Raiders offense, and, in 2020, he finally got into the end zone regularly. Henry Ruggs allegedly improved, but he won’t lead the Raiders in targets given his role. Also, a Ruggs improvement in 2021 is good news because any over-the-top threat is certain to help Waller underneath. While I wish Waller’s aDOT was a little higher, his target share guarantees that his total air yards will exceed the threshold we want. Waller is a fantastic pick in the 3rd.
This is a bit of a leap of faith because Hockenson has never come close to the air yards totals that we are looking for (a mere 723 in 16 games played in 2020). But, Hockenson did eclipse 100 targets in 2020 without being the primary target on his team (Marvin Jones had 115, and Golladay was mostly “hurt” (aka waiting to sign a big contract) in 2020). So why do I believe that Hockenson has the skill necessary to be a league winner? First, he’s projected to lead the Lions in targets for the first time in his career, and new offensive coordinator, Anthony Lynn, has been talking about designing the offense around Hockenson’s ability. Also, I think that Hockenson is ready to break out fully. Many will knock his QB play or the Lions offense generally, but as we learned above, there is more than one way to climb this mountain. Andy has Hock scoring 7 touchdowns, and Jason has him catching 95 balls for 1030 yards. Those numbers are close to what we saw out of Darren Waller last year. 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.
Hock struggled with drops last year, but his 101 targets in 2020 demonstrate a developing skill, even if the skill was primarily focused near the line of scrimmage. With another year of maturity and becoming the focal point of the offense, I would project him for 150 targets in a 17 game season and far fewer drops. If he hits 150 targets, he’s a home run pick in the 5th.
Well, that wraps it up for the Tight End Position. Stay tuned this whole month as I will finish this exercise with QBs, and don’t forget to read the RB League Winner article and WR League Winner article if you haven’t! Now, go win some championships!