Tight-Ends, Touchdowns & Regression in Fantasy Football

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On Thursday’s Fantasy Wildcard show, Andy highlighted some of the research we did looking at tight-ends and TDs when discussing a certain Packers TE who finished 3rd at the position for fantasy last year. It was a crazy efficient season for Robert Tonyan.

As mentioned in 10 Shocking Stats from 2020 article earlier this offseason, if your name is Robert and you play TE in the NFL, you might have a chance to have an outlier performance. Since 1992 (when targets became a stat) only two pass-catchers (i.e. RB/WR/TEs) had double-digit TD receptions in a season with fewer than 60 targets: Rob Gronkowski in 2011 and Tonyan last year.

What do we do that information? Is Tonyan the new Gronk? 11 TDs is impressive and TE3 makes me perk up but as we turn the page and look at 2021, can we expect that type of production on such few targets again?

The Colors & Numbers

As mentioned on the show, we looked at every TE that caught eight or more TDs in a season since 2014. That is 23 TEs in this data where we know what happened the following year.

The main columns are on the far right where I compare fantasy finish (FF) and TDs with how each tight-end produced the following year:

Some of these names are a blast from the past that perhaps you picked up on the waiver wire to fantasy glory. Gary Barnidge FTW!

Key Takeaways

Major regression hit like a mack truck.

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Basically, everyone was hit at some level but the average of these 23 TEs since 2014 was decreasing 4.9 TDs the next year. That is the average which is not meant to be predictive but it does show you that repeating double-digits might not be in the equation for Tonyan. When you factor in Aaron Rodgers and his career-high TD rate of 9.1 percent from last year, it’s just simply not repeatable.

Take for instance Evan Engram, who saw 109 targets last year and turned them into 63 receptions and 634 receiving yards. Engram outpaced Tonyan in all of those categories. He saw more red-zone targets (13-to-11), ran 150 more routes, and only had three fewer “end-zone” targets. Everything should point to Engram having better or at least similar production to Tonyan. Except Engram ended up with just ONE receiving touchdown on the season. For context, since 2000, Evan Engram’s 2020 campaign was the WORST in terms of fantasy points per game season for a TE with 100+ targets. Those are two ends of the tight-end TD spectrum.

For more on TEs and expected fantasy points, check out Marvin’s Fantasy Expectation series where he highlights who at the position overperformed and underperformed in 2020.

Returning ADP value ain’t looking too good either.

Basically, all of these players in the data set finished lower in terms of fantasy finishes and on average 10 spots lower next year. Some of these were predictable fades in terms of their ADP/draft cost but at the tight-end position, we don’t even want to glance at a middling option. An 8th round pick doesn’t sound like too much to give up but if your TE is predictably going to end up being a borderline streaming option, you likely burned that pick. Tonyan is going as the 8.10 currently in drafts.

If your name isn’t Gronk or Kelce, good luck.

Seriously, those two are clearly the best tight-ends of this generation and it isn’t even close. You probably already knew that though. But there is a reason we can’t bank on other options each year because although many TEs are put in starting lineups based on the “TD-or-bust” scenario, we shouldn’t be chasing that long-term.

This next chart might be elementary in its conclusion but the numbers might help clarify why banking on TDs with TEs is a dangerous game to play. Here is how the four major statistical categories for pass-catchers (targets, receptions, yards, & TDs) correlated with fantasy points over the last five years. The sample size included the top-50 players at each position (i.e. 250 total WRs & 250 total TEs)

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TEs are even more tightly correlated than WRs as they don’t offer anything in the running game (i.e. Tyreek Hill or the Robert Woods jet sweep effect) and they aren’t targeted nearly as much as wideouts. But year-to-year, TDs fall behind the other positions in terms of fantasy points. While clearly TDs help boost fantasy value, they do not always correlate with exactly where someone finishes.

Conclusion

I’ll follow up this by looking at the five TEs that met the 8+ TD threshold in 2020 and what it might mean for their outlook this year. Tight-ends are already a fickle game to play in fantasy football. Hopefully, this gives you some perspective and a chance to re-examine metrics you’ve used to identify TEs.

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