After diving in with a look at scoring, drives and plays and red zone production, we’re finally going to shift our focus into the specific positions for fantasy football. Kicking that positional outlook off, we’re just going to dive into the worst position for fantasy purposes, tight ends.
Over the past decade, the tight end position has settled in comfortably around the lower 20-percent mark in terms of targets, receptions yardage and overall receiving output for fantasy purposes. The one area where tight ends to carve out a larger impact than their minimal overall usage suggests is that they out-kick their usage in the touchdown department. Specifically, the position makes their mark in this department with how many short scores the crux of the position relies on, as we highlighted a few weeks back when looking at the players who needed goal-line targets the most.
In our very first post, we talked about how scoring was way down in 2017 and next week we’ll uncover that drop-off stemmed from one of the worst passing-volume seasons over the past decade. The increased use of running backs in the passing game also had a direct impact on tight ends as running backs out-targeted the tight end position a year ago for the first time in a season since 2008. That overall volume loss crushed the tight end position for fantasy purposes as the position collectively had their lowest-scoring season since the 2009 campaign. This was coming on the heels of the position having a dreadful 2016-season as well, especially from the best producers at the position.
Top-12 Scoring Tight End Output Over the Past 10 Years
The best of the position was able to squeeze out a bit more touchdown production than the previous season, but collectively, the best starting-caliber bulk producers at the tight end position turned in their lowest-scoring season since 2008. Both Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski posted more points than what paced the position a year ago but looking at the actual individual performances that made up the best of the position in bulk, uncovers even further that 2017 was one of the worst fantasy seasons we’ve seen in quite some time for pass catchers.
Outside of Kelce and Gronk, Zach Ertz posted the lowest-scoring season for a TE3 in eight years while the next three players after him in fantasy production haven’t had a season with lower output in relation to their respective scoring finish since the 2003 seasons. If you think this looks bad, just wait until we get to the impact 2017 had on wide receivers, but the tight end position offered us very few options that we could count on as week-to-week producers, something that is hardly new.
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No position has a worse rollover in terms of week-to-week consistency than the tight end position and it’s not particularly close. This is largely because their opportunity is the smallest of the skill positions and are reliant on touchdown production to carve out top-scoring weeks. Over the past five seasons, less than half of the players that produce a starting caliber-week in season (excluding Week 17) at the tight end position go on to produce three or more in that same year and fewer than a quarter (22.2 percent) post six or more starting weeks in the same season.
Finding the players that continually post those consistent weeks is a moving target. Only Travis Kelce (four straight seasons), Delanie Walker (three) and Jimmy Graham (two) have running streaks of multiple seasons with eight or more games registering as starting caliber weeks. Over that span, just five tight ends have had three or more seasons with eight or more such weeks, with Gronkowski and Greg Olsen joining the previously mentioned trio. And that’s just with the bar set at the baseline. In terms of consistently being able to post true alpha-type weeks to give you a true advantage over your opponent, only Gronkowski has multiple seasons with eight or more weeks with top-6 scoring weekly numbers, doing so in three of the past five seasons. Gronk is the true king, with 78.9 percent (45-of-57) of his games played over that span hitting the TE1 baseline with 56.1 percent of his weeks ranking as a top-6 scorer and 40.4 percent as a top-3 fantasy option in that given week he took the field.
With such few options that continually produce, you may consider it an advantage in grabbing one of the top options. That way you don’t have to deal with the micro-management of unproductive players at an inherently unproductive position. That latter statement is where you run into the true issue of using high draft capital on a tight end, however.
This is why more and more leagues are adopting a “TE Premium” for tight ends in regard to scoring, where tight ends will get more points per catch than the other positions because they just can’t pace the scoring juice from those spots while you only need to roster one in the majority of starting lineups. Over the past five seasons, the average TE1 is only producing 80.8 percent of the top scoring running back in PPR formats and 74.5 percent of the top-scoring wide receiver with a linear decline as we move down the line at the position. In standard leagues, the subsequent drop off isn’t as direct, but the production is much worse in relation to other skill positions once you strip away points per reception.
As for generating a baseline for the position, the average TE12 scores on par with the RB30 and WR37 in standard formats while those marks are the RB25 and WR38 in PPR formats. Even in a down year for the wide receiver position, the top tight end still only produced 70.4 percent of the lead wideout.
This is where those who use value over replacement player (VORP) or a value-based drafting (VBD) mentality can be led into coveting one of those top options at the position. For one, we already just highlighted that finding those guys that rollover that type of production consistently are hard to find while in the context of matching the ceiling production and predictability of weekly scoring at those other positions isn’t something the tight end position is even capable of.
The other area where a value-based approach masks is the supply and demand element of fantasy football. A traditional fantasy football lineup requires only one tight end, but at least two running backs and wide receivers. Adding on injury rates, players busting and with flex spots and/or an additional wide receiver spot, the demand for running backs and wideouts is much greater than the other positions. Even before factoring in that those players score more points, they are inherently more expensive in drafts because the need to obtain those players is higher.
What a value-based approach fails to fully encapsulate is that demand in relation to cost. While your board may be telling you that you should take a tight end versus a wideout or a running back at a specific point because his value over the baseline player of his position is greater than anyone else available, what it doesn’t account for is where the cost of the other positional baselines is. Using Frank Dupont’s oldie but goodie Man Games article, the true baseline for the tight end position for 12-team leagues that are required to start one is the TE18, which carries an average ADP of 149.9 overall in drafts over the past five years. Compared to the other baselines of the positions (RB34 and WR31 or WR49 depending on starting requirements), the running back baseline is set at pick 101.6 while the wide receiver baseline is set at pick 80.5 for leagues that are required to start two wideouts and pick 133.9 for leagues that require three starters. If your baseline player at the position is being selected up to four rounds later than the baseline at another position you’re forfeiting your edge gained by taking on players that fall below those baselines at other spots. I’m willing to entertain Gronk in the back half of the second round in PPR formats when I have a high-touchdown producing running back already banked, but when I miss out on that opportunity, I’m waiting several rounds to draft the position because running backs and wide receviers are just too valuable in traditional league settings.