How Do We Identify Breakout TEs in Dynasty? (Fantasy Football)
As we all get older, there are a number of things you kinda have to do. Those geriatric doctor visits and checkups aren’t necessarily at the top of your list of things to accomplish but it’s better to get things checked out early… so you know. You know?
Way back in March, Andy, Mike, and Jason shared some of their Things to Remember for 2023. I added the final point entitling it “Get your Tight Ends Checked Out Early” using as many derriere extraordinaire puns as possible. But in the end, sharing my findings on a podcast was not enough room.
Here was some of the research I compiled, the sticky statistics, and my favorite breakout TE in dynasty.
Identifying Breakout TEs
What is the process for identifying these TEs and how we are defining “breakout”?
I highly recommend reading fellow Footballers writer Marvin Elequin’s The Lifecycle of a Dynasty TE and Anticipating the Breakout series to get you prepped on the subject. Marvin set the bar for a “breakout” at a top-12 fantasy season in PPR leagues but I want to take this a step further.
Let’s find out the key factors for a TE to put up a top-3 fantasy season. Since 2015, the average for a top-3 TE in half-point leagues is roughly 12.98 fantasy points. Let’s call it 13 for those scoring at home. But beyond trying to start with an endpoint in mind, how does a top-3 TE grow into that level of fantasy production and what types of players have we seen vault into this category? Are there sticky stats and telling signs early on for the position?
Jason shared his advice on the recent Fantasy Footballers Dynasty Podcast: don’t draft rookie TEs! Period. The advice may sound a bit dogmatic but he had the data to back it up. Over the last decade, 143 different TEs were taken in rookie drafts with only five real hits in rookie drafts. That is an abysmal rate. Often we find TEs with draft capital don’t necessarily match that within the first couple of years. Yes, we’re shooting for the moon here trying to find difference-making TEs and the reality is: not many of them exist!
4for4.com’s TJ Hernandez has a great write-up on some of the most predictive TE stats. He discussed how “air yards and target depth have proven to be among the most stable year-to-year metrics and can help predict yardage output for tight ends.”
Building off of some of their research, here is where I have steered my focus on finding the next breakout TE.
YAC-Ability & Yards Per Route Run
Let’s flesh out these by looking at two metrics (YAC & YPRR) which can help fill in some of the background for our TE puzzle.
Perhaps a better metric to use for YAC is analyzing it per reception. Here were the leaders from 2022 along with some of their other relevant metrics.
We’re looking for the tight-end that extends drives and is more likely to break off big gains and get downfield with chunk yardage plays. The Jack Doyles & Austin Hoopers of the world run 5-yard drags and fall down. Kevin Cole recently tweeted out a tremendous thread on the subject aligning with some of my previous research on the topic I shared in March on the podcast. Here’s a chart he referenced pulling data from PFF sharing how these TEs faired in college with YAC.
The only downside of looking at this stat is that it can be skewed. For example, a TE who breaks one tackle on a 5-yard out and runs for another 20+ yards looks like a YAC king compared to the guy who catches a 25-yard seam route and is immediately tackled. It’s the same yardage but one showcased the ability to gain a target down the field while the other can show tackle-breaking ability.
It may seem redundant to look at another stat that emphasizes yardage but factoring in routes matters at this position. We want TEs who are on the field but blocking on a play does not guarantee this player will be running more routes the rest of the game. What we care about is TEs who run routes, who are targeted on those routes, and the elite ones who create yards. Thus, yards per route run gives us a solid indicator of how a TE is performing relative to his opportunity.
We looked at every young TE from former My Guys Travis Kelce and Coby Fleener (gasp!) to one-hit wonders like Crockett Gillmore and Larry Donnell. The list was given the following two parameters:
- TEs within their 1st two years playing in the NFL
- At least 40+ targets; anything less felt like grasping at straws.
As you can see, this list is filled with the main breakout TEs for fantasy over the last decade. It’s a bit astounding
- You might’ve forgotten but Travis Kelce played ONE special teams snap in his rookie year before missing the entire year due to injury. In 2014, he burst onto the scene.
- You might’ve forgotten how bright Jordan Reed‘s star burned finishing as the TE2 in 2015. But it was actually his rookie year (2013) that showed up in this study. His crippling injuries still are a painful memory of what could’ve been…
- I was pretty bullish on Kittle going into the 2018 season projecting him as the TE9. But I look foolish compared to where he ended up. Even the most ecstatic forecasters could not have seen a record-breaking sophomore season in the cards. Luckily, he was my favorite late-round TE of that year.
- Mark Andrews was my “My Guy” in 2019 after identifying some key after-the-catch metrics and using some of the same criteria I applied to find George Kittle. I wrote an article entitled Narrowing the Field to Find 2019’s George Kittle highlighting Andrews’ rookie season as a reason to go fully in.
- Say what you want about Kyle Pitts two years into the league. No one is arguing against his athleticism. His usage and the Atlanta system is concerning when you factor in the insane draft capital (No. 4) that Atlanta spent on him.
It’s an impressive list that includes one outlier name that might shock you…
A New Challenger Enters the Ring
Am I declaring him a “My Guy” in May? Maybe. Did the Ballers twist my words on the podcast to declare him the “Stone Cold Lock of the Century”? Most definitely. But Chig Okonkwo is shaping up to be one of the better bets in dynasty right now that likely was acquired… off your dynasty waiver wire!
Based on that list above, 2nd year TE Chig Okonkwo might be the next TE to take the leap into an elite tier of fantasy difference-makers. His 2.61 yards per route run led all TEs in 2022 (min. 40 targets) and ranked 2nd among all pass-catchers behind only Tyreek Hill. While Chig’s total volume (45) certainly skews some of our views with such a small sample size, it’s worth noting how stats like aDOT and YPRR can stabilize over a short period of time. As Danny Tuccitto of Intentional Rounding pointed out, aDOT can stabilize fairly quickly for TEs at only nine games or approximately “32 targets and about 157 routes” according to his study. Chig meets all of those requirements but it’s his after-the-catch ability that shined as a rookie:
- 3 plays of 40+ yards
- 4 plays of 30+ yards
- 6 plays of 20+ yards
The best part of that final statistic is that he had only two receptions with 20+ Air Yards. In other words, the other four receptions were after the catch. For context, Chig posted the 2nd best YAC per reception number (7.8) of any rookie TE since 2016 (min. 30 targets) and the 12th-best of any TE in the last seven years.
For your viewing pleasure, here are all six of those 20+ yard plays from Chig in 2022.
remember that time a rookie named chig had as many 20+ yard receptions as mark andrews? pic.twitter.com/vF6S9KFS1n
— Kyle Borgognoni (@kyle_borg) April 25, 2023