Planting My Flag: The Tyler Higbee Breakout Was Real (Fantasy Football)
Last season I only wrote up two-player specific articles the whole season, because I pride myself on not being the person who throws names at the wall and then takes credit for the ones that do well and pretends I never mentioned the others. If I plant my flag on a draft pick, it’s because I think there’s an overwhelming value presented at his ADP. Not everyone can produce the way you want them to, but last season I feel comfortable saying I hit on both Darren Waller and Devin Singletary very early in the draft process. I have no idea why anyone would listen to me, but if they did, they likely had a huge leg up if they drafted both in the late rounds.
I plan to do this more frequently this year, but not just with late-round sleepers. A fantasy draft is won in the late rounds, lost in the early rounds, and can be either in the middle rounds. The most important part of the process when crafting a plan is to identify players that have a higher chance of outplaying their ADP than those drafted in the same range.
Speaking of the middle rounds, this is likely where this guy will end up. In the past few years, this has been an area of disappointment for tight ends, specifically O.J. Howard last year. He may have been one of the biggest busts in recent memory. There’s a risk to be seen here too, but I’m willing to plant my season-long flag on a tight end in Los Angeles that won people championships last year: Tyler Higbee.
Even though it’s a small sample size, over the last six weeks of the 2019 season Higbee averaged 10.3 targets per game. To put that in perspective, Julio Jones and Michael Thomas were the only players in the entire league that had a higher per game average than that for the year. The opportunity he saw in the last quarter of the year was incredible, and he made the most of it for fantasy owners in the process. George Kittle and Travis Kelce are the two solidified tight ends that everyone scrambles to grab early in their drafts, but Higbee outplayed both of them in nearly every metric that matters for fantasy during that late-season stretch. It was so impressive that it actually vaulted him into some exclusive territory for season-long output.
Along with a top-seven finish in receptions, receiving yards, and total targets, Higbee finished in the top five at his position in yards per route run, catch rate, yards after the catch, and fantasy points per route run for the entire season. He also led all tight ends in red-zone targets and red zone receptions, while finishing seventh overall in red-zone targets and top five in red zone catch rate – at any position. To put it in perspective, Higbee had the same number of red-zone targets as Travis Kelce in 2019, but twice as many receptions. One of those guys plays with Patrick Mahomes, the other plays with Jared Goff.
When you look for a fantasy tight end you need someone who will see a lot of touchdown opportunity, or someone heavily involved in the passing attack. From week 12 on, Higbee was in the rare class of tight ends that checked off both boxes. This might sound crazy, but Higbee produced at Kittle-like levels across the board during that timeframe. We should feel very confident that Sean McVay noticed the same things I did. He’s way smarter than me.
Long story short, any way you slice it – this breakout wasn’t just unexpected, it was overwhelmingly impressive. It puts him in a class with some of the best fantasy tight ends of the past five years. There’s no logical way to pick apart just how impressive it was, and there’s no reason to think McVay would just let it go.
Higbee’s breakout was ignited by an injury to Gerald Everett in Week 12 which helped contribute to his massive uptick in targets. A lot of people will point to McVay’s faith in Everett and the fact that he’ll be back in 2020, but most fail to realize he was back in 2019, you just didn’t notice. Everett was in the lineup in the last two weeks of the season alongside Higbee, and Higbee still saw a whopping 23 targets in those two games. Everett was only targeted once. In terms of fantasy production, during that same short time frame – Higbee was the TE1. Obviously this sample size is tiny and I’m not expecting Julio Jones-like target totals for Higbee every week in 2020, but the breakout can’t be ignored. Mcvay is a smart coach, and smart coaches don’t see someone produce at that level and toss them on the bench.
With the departure of Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley from the Rams offense, there are 121 targets up for grabs that could go in a number of directions. Josh Reynolds should see a boost, but early reports indicate he will move him to the outside to slide into the Brandin Cooks role. The collection of players in the Rams backfield should snag some of the targets vacated from Gurley, but there’s definitely enough available to keep Everett involved the way McVay wants, and still allow Higbee to continue his breakout in 2020.
What to Watch For
There’s a long way to go before the season kicks off, so it’s always possible we get new information on McVay’s plans for the offense, and Higbee. I’m willing to bet McVay knows what the numbers tell him, and that’s part of the reason he was fine moving on from Cooks and Gurley. I would be confident enough to draft Higbee in the top five at his position if we were to draft tomorrow. Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Zach Ertz, and Mark Andrews are the only guys I’d take ahead of him right now, but all of that could change in the coming months of course. He will likely land in the back half of the top ten tight ends in 2020 drafts, which means you should feel ecstatic about taking him at his ADP if it’s in the late middle rounds. Keep an eye on McVay, but Higbee should be a top dynasty target right now. If worse comes to worst, feel free to blame me if it doesn’t go well.