Fantasy Football: Studying the Positional Draft Value of TEs

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WARNING: If you have a deep-seated distaste for statistics, data analysis, or tables full of numbers, this article may cause hair loss, fits of madness, and possibly long-term comatose. Proceed with caution.

If you haven’t read the article covering the quarterback position, check it out for an overall intro to this series and some of the basic concepts and qualifiers. If you did read it, thanks for coming back for Episode II: The Attack of the Tight Ends (sorry for the reference to the prequel trilogy, we all suffered together).

Tight End Is the High-Stakes Table in Fantasy

The data on tight ends bears several similarities to that on QBs, but taken up a notch. Let’s start with the ADP to production breakdown again.

POSITIONAL ADP

(Approx. Round)

TE1-TE4

(Rounds 3-4)

TE5-TE9

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(Rounds 5-8)

TE10-15

(Rounds 9-11)

FANTASY FINISH TE1-TE4 35.0% 20.0% 10.0%
TE5-TE9 30.0% 24.0% 16.7%
TE10-TE15 5.0% 12.0% 33.3%
TE16+ 30.0% 44.0% 40.0%

This one’s a little more difficult to decipher, but here are a few notes. First, drafting a top-tier tight end (Rounds 3-4) typically produces a solid starter (TE1-TE9), with a hit rate of 65% — the best of any positional tier in this ADP range, even the QB1s discussed last article (60%). On the flip side, they also have a surprisingly high “massive bust” rate, with 30% of elite tight ends finishing outside the top 15, compared to 20% of elite RBs and only 8.8% of elite WRs finishing outside the top 35 at their respective positions.

This could result from a few factors. One is simply that the window for a tight end to avoid the “bust” label is relatively tight, considering most fantasy leagues only start a single tight end. A guy could just crack the top half of the NFL at his position and still not be startable in fantasy. Of course, this isn’t for no reason — legitimate offensive production at the position is depressingly rare, even after a “renaissance” in recent years on the backs of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Jordan Reed, and Travis Kelce. As such, leagues that feature more than one tight end are almost nonexistent, and you’re often better off starting an NFL team’s fourth-best wideout in your FLEX than its starting tight end.

The other potential reason is an injury. There are a few reasons the tight end position could be more susceptible to injury, which we’ve so often seen tank the seasons of the most elite. It’s a given that they’re less protected than QBs, who are by far the safest position from an injury standpoint (last season’s unfortunate events notwithstanding). Then, unlike WRs, they’re often required to block on the line. This exposes them to lineman-type injuries that wideouts don’t often deal with. And when they do run routes, you’ll very often see them running up the seam and across the middle of the field, taking massive contact hits from linebackers and safeties and raising the risk of concussions, contusions, etc. Anyone who’s owned Gronk, Graham, Reed, or even Tyler Eifert in recent years know the difficulty of this phenomenon.

Meanwhile, TEs also have a solid rate of production, if not quite to QB levels, later in the draft. Tight ends drafted in Rounds 5-11 produce at an elite level (TE1-TE4) 14.5% of the time, compared to 8.6% for WRs (WR1-WR9), and only 6.7% for RBs (RB1-RB9) found in the same draft rounds. They also produce at a solid starter level 34.5% of the time, compared to 23.3% for WRs and 20.7% for RBs. Again, this may be an odd byproduct of the shallow talent pool, low roster minimums, and rarity of legitimate offensive production. In an odd twist, this means that picking a guy at the back end of the TE group — who’s still the No. 1 option for his NFL team — is more likely to lead to upside than throwing a dart at one of a hundred WR4s, who’ll have to leapfrog up the depth chart just to find the opportunity for a breakout.

In the end, these notes allow for a lot variance in tight end draft strategy, as it basically tells us that tight end throughout the draft is fairly reliable, with a slightly elevated risk of a major letdown for the elite guys compared to the other skill positions. So where is the motivation to snipe a Gronk or Kelce in 2018?

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Well, a more exciting study, when it comes to tight ends, is point production. Take another look at the tiered production table from the QB article, and note the drop off in points at the tight end position as you progress through the draft.

QB Projected Avg. Points Per Game (Tier Drop-off) RB Projected Avg. Points Per Game (Tier Drop-off) WR Projected Avg. Points Per Game (Tier Drop-off) TE Projected Avg. Points Per Game (Tier Drop-off)
Rounds 3-4 19.8 10.9 11.9 11.4
Rounds 5-8 17.5 (-2.3) 9.0 (-1.9) 10.0 (-1.9) 8.7 (-2.7)
Rounds 9-11 16.1 (-1.4) 7.0 (-2.0) 8.0 (-2.0) 6.9 (-1.8)
Total Drop-off 3.7 3.9 3.9 4.5

By far the biggest tier drop at any position comes at TE in the move from the elite guys to the middle-round talent. This should be a fairly familiar concept, as the super-tier of Gronk, Kelce, and now Ertz is one of the clearest in fantasy. In 2017, those three averaged 12.8 fantasy points per game. The next closest player — let alone the next tier average — was Jimmy Graham with 8.9 points per game. That’s a 3.9 point gap. While you can find that kind of gap between Gurley/Bell/Elliott or Hopkins/Brown and their positional counterparts, those are all top-half of the first round players. With the top tight ends, you’re getting the same level of positional value in the third and fourth rounds. Here, you’d otherwise be looking at guys like Joe Mixon and Brandin Cooks, who hold much less relative point production value over the Lamar Millers and Golden Tates of a couple rounds later.

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As for the following tier drop, from Rounds 5-8 to Rounds 9-11, it’s a greatly reduced 1.8-point drop, which is less than the dropoff at RB and WR over that same range. This makes tight ends in those middle rounds (e.g. Kyle Rudolph, Delanie Walker) some of the least valuable players in the draft. They simultaneously offer less tier-based upside than the TEs above them and the WRs/RBs around them. In other words, if you miss out on the elite guys, you’re better served taking another position in these rounds and to wait for sleeper picks like George Kittle or David Njoku later in the draft.

Conclusion

So what does it all mean? Well, due to their high hit rate (barring injury) and their incredibly high positional value, elite tight ends in the early rounds are worth a serious consideration. The advantage they offer over other skill position players at their ADP is hard to find elsewhere in the draft. The downside, of course, is that you will lose an RB or WR in those rounds. Starters at those spots are harder to find late, and there are typically more of them in your lineup. Fortunately, Parts 3 and 4 of this series will delve into those two positions, and where to successfully make up that critical value. Look for those in the coming week!