The Lifecycle of a Dynasty Tight End (Fantasy Football)
Welcome back to “The Lifecycle of a Dynasty Player” series. After analyzing the career arc of a running back and a wide receiver, we shift our focus to the Tight End position. Generally, the assumption is that tight ends do not produce early while peaking relatively late in their career. Using historical data dating back to 2000 (21 seasons), I let the numbers speak for themselves to either confirm or debunk that assumption while answering the following questions:
- When do Tight Ends peak for fantasy?
- Should we expect a rookie TE to contribute immediately?
- How do we identify the Tight Ends that produce 10+ years into their career?
The scoring format assumed in this analysis is PPR points per game, with a minimum of 8 games played. As always, this data was sourced from Pro Football Reference.
Historical Top-12 and Top-3 TE Finishes by Age
As always, we will start by analyzing the number of top-12 seasons by age. For the tight end position, two things stand out.
- First off, we have only seen seven tight ends younger than the age of 23 finish as a TE1. For context, that is about 2.78% of the total TE1 sample size over the last 21 seasons. This would imply that a young TE, as excited as we are for them to change the trajectory of our dynasty teams, is unlikely to impact our lineups immediately. Looking at the 23 and 24 age groups, the sample size starts to increase, with each age accounting for 7.94% and 8.33% of the total respectively. Those percentages are nearly identical to the 28 to 30 age group, implying that TEs become more impactful starting at age 23.
- Secondly, I was extremely surprised to see the majority of the TE1 sample size fall within the ages 25 to 27, which impressively accounts for 41.3% of the total. While the general notion is that tight ends tend to peak later in their career, this dataset shows the majority of tight ends are most productive at age 25.
In this next chart you will notice that, unlike my first two articles, I will not be highlighting players that ranked outside of the top-12. Instead, I will focus on the Tight Ends that finished within the top-3, since those are the true difference-makers in our lineups. As you can see above, this sample size is concentrated within the ages of 25 to 28, accounting for a whopping 58.7% of all top-3 TE seasons since 2000. Interestingly, the totals drop drastically after age 28, which differs from my first chart where the sample size remains fairly strong up until age 30. Finally, we continue to see the trend that young tight ends before the age of 24 are less likely to produce a dominant season. With this information in mind, two tight ends within the peak ages of 25 and 28 who could lead their team in targets are Mark Andrews and Dallas Goedert.
And to conclude this segment, listed below are some of the most productive tight ends over the last two decades:
- Tony Gonzalez leads all TEs since 2000 in TE1 finishes (14 total)
- Tony Gonzalez leads all TEs since 2000 in Top-3 TE finishes (9 total)
- Rob Gronkowski & Travis Kelce lead all active TEs in top-3 TE finishes (5 each)
- Aaron Hernandez is the youngest to finish as a TE1 since 2000 (age 21)
- Tony Gonzalez is the oldest to finish as a TE1 since 2000 (age 37)
Sample Size from 2000 to 2020
The Lifecycle of a Tight End
To fully understand the career arc and lifecycle of a dynasty tight end, I had to narrow down my sample size. Instead of focusing on all tight ends, my graph below is isolated to players that were drafted from 2000 to 2013 with at least eight career seasons in the NFL. That gives us a sample size of 50 tight ends, headlined by Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten, and Vernon Davis. In the chart below, I then plotted out their total PPR production, as well as their PPR per game average throughout their career.
At first glance, this confirms the notion that tight ends are late bloomers, with the ages of 22 to 24 averaging the lowest PPR average in this chart. The one exception in that range happens to be at age 22, where we see an anomalous spike. Multiple factors are driving that increase. Firstly, only 18 players from my sample size were active in the league at age 22. About 72.2% of those players were day one or two drafted prospects, potentially explaining why they entered the league early. In fact, according to this sample size, most tight ends enter the league during their age 23-season, which is why we see the average drop once again at that specific age. Lastly, because of the small sample size, Rob Gronkowski averaging 20.7 PPR points per game at age 22 heavily skews the data as well.
Furthermore, the graph clearly depicts the peak of a tight end’s production within the ages of 25 to 30, with age 26 averaging the most points at 6.44 per game. And similar to my previous charts, we see a drastic dropoff starting at the age of 31. Based on these results, the tight end position seems to have the longest peak among all skill position players, with running backs and wide receivers declining after age 28 and 29, respectively.
Interestingly, we see the PPR per game average rise yet again at age 33 and 34. Similar to age 22, this can be explained by the significant decline in sample size, with only 34% of tight ends remaining active that far into their career. As a result, players such as Delanie Walker, Jason Witten, and Greg Olsen raise the average significantly, causing the spike we see above. In other words, while most tight ends start to decline at age 31, the productive ones tend to have a longer lifespan in the NFL. So what do these elite tight ends have in common? How do we identify them before they hit age 31? First off, here is a list of all TEs in my sample size who have had at least one TE1 season after the age of 30:
What do they have in common? They averaged about four TE1 seasons by age 31, signaling the elite production I mentioned above. Jared Cook is the one outlier who did not finish as a TE1 until after age 30. In addition, six of the seven were day one or two drafted prospects, with Delanie Walker as the only TE drafted on day three. Lastly, all players on this list – except for Heath Miller – boast elite athleticism, scoring in the +70th percentile in their speed and/or burst score entering the league.
In short, athleticism and high draft capital matter significantly for the TE position, which generally signals that a prospect could produce early in their career. Once they hit age 31, those thresholds matter less. As long as the player produces multiple (ideally 4+) TE1 seasons before the age of 31, regardless of draft capital (Delanie Walker) or athleticism (Heath Miller), they possess a higher likelihood of producing into their mid-30s.
The Peak Years
Finally, we conclude our age analysis by observing the peak age of a tight end. For reference, I define a peak season as the best PPR seasonal average (minimum 8 games) for a player. After charting out each player’s peak season in my 50 player sample size, the data confirms our previous conclusions. Most tight ends tend to have their best season between the ages of 25 and 28. Though, unlike the running back and wide receiver position, the range in this graph extends into the 30s, with six tight ends averaging their best season at age 30 or older. The one tight end to peak at age 35 is none other than Ben Watson, who had his best season with the Saints in 2015. Keep in mind though, a peak season does not imply that a player did not produce before or even after their best season. In fact, I already mentioned above that Gronk had his best year at age 22, yet he would continue to dominate for several seasons. On the other hand, Heath Miller peaked at age 30 while producing multiple TE1 seasons before that campaign.
Kyle Pitts: The Outlier?
If we take all of this information into account, does this mean that 21-year old rookie Kyle Pitts is bound to disappoint in his first season? Potentially. History would indicate that he would be an outlier if he finished at or above his current ADP of TE5. I will say, however, that Pitts is a once-in-a-decade prospect. In fact, he is one of only two tight ends drafted since 2010 to finish his college career with the following profile:
- +10% team yards market share
- +10.0 college PPR points per game
- +1.50 receiving yards per team pass attempt
- +120 Weight-Adjusted Speed Score
The other tight end to meet these thresholds is Evan Engram, who has finished as a TE1 in three of his first four seasons. In short, Pitts boasts an impressive blend of college production and elite athleticism (which matters more for TE’s than any other position). If I had to bet on a prospect to break the trends I outlined above, it would have to be Pitts!
Hopefully, this information was helpful as you build your championship rosters for the 2021 dynasty season. To summarize, here are some of the key takeaways from this article:
- Age 21 to 24: Tight ends rarely produce their best seasons in this age range as they generally start slower than running backs and wide receivers. Therefore, temper your expectations with players such as Pat Freiermuth and Cole Kmet, since they are more likely to produce their first TE1 season after the age of 24.
- Age 25 to 30: These are by far the most productive years for a tight end. It is also the most pivotal point of a tight end’s career. If they are unable to produce around 4+ TE1 seasons by the end of this age range, they are unlikely to remain productive later in their career. Travis Kelce has met the thresholds above, while Darren Waller is on a trajectory to exceed them. Zach Ertz, despite his decline, has been extremely productive throughout his career as well (five TE1 seasons since 2015). If he can find life on another team, I would not be surprised if he produced at least one more TE1 season in his career.
- Age 31 to 32: This age range signals the decline for most tight ends, as we see the average PPR per game production drop off significantly. If a tight end was mostly unproductive in their mid-to-late 20’s, do not hesitate to trade them away while they still have value before they hit this age range (hello, Logan Thomas).
- Age 33 and older: At this point in a tight ends career, only the elite players continue to produce for fantasy. Most tight ends past the age of 33 are likely already on your dynasty waiver wire. However, hold on to those who produced multiple TE1 seasons earlier in their career. Because assuming they are healthy, they could still provide value at a position that is mostly devoid of consistent producers.
If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to reach out on Twitter @FF_MarvinE.