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This Spotlight was written by guest writer David Semanza. David can be found on Twitter @davidsemenza1.
SETTING THE STAGE
After a breakout 2012 campaign, which saw Dennis Pitta set career highs with 61 receptions for 669 yards and a team leading seven touchdowns, not to mention a Super Bowl victory, he was pegged as a popular fantasy tight end breakout candidate entering the 2013 season. Unfortunately for Pitta and the Ravens, these dreams were dashed before they were ever able to get started. On the third day of last year’s training camp, Pitta was carted off of the field because of a fractured and dislocated hip that he sustained trying to make a diving catch over the middle of the field. Pitta surprised the organization when he returned from what was considered a season-ending injury to play the final four games of the season. Although he did acknowledge that he wasn’t himself when he returned, he showed his toughness and dedication to the team and still finished the year with 20 catches for 169 yards and a touchdown. The Ravens rewarded his allegiance this offseason with a five year $32 million dollar contract, amplifying their commitment to him as an important piece of their offense.
The expectation for this season is that Pitta will be an integral part of the offense scheme under new Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak, who has a long history of featuring the tight end. As a part of Kubiak’s scheme, the Ravens are expected to feature a lot of two-tight end sets this season. Along with recently signed former Texan Owen Daniels, Kubiak will make strong use of both players via "12" formations, with the more athletic Pitta featured in the "move" role, formerly occupied by Daniels in Houston. When determining Pitta’s fantasy prospects for the 2014 season, a detailed analysis of Kubiak’s TE usage as the head coach of the Houston Texans can provide valuable insight on how Pitta can be expected to be utilized.
KUBIAK'S HISTORY OF TE USAGE
Since 2009, TE’s under Kubiak’s scheme have averaged 94 receptions, 1,126 yards and nine touchdowns which equate to elite TE1 production. However, because of usage of multiple TE’s within the system, these statistics have been historically split among three TEs, with the “move” TE (for which Pitta will be deployed) gaining the lion’s share of the production. The top TE in the Houston offense. as seen in the chart below, has averaged 52% of the total statistical performance in receptions and yards since 2009.
Furthermore, since 2009, the highest percentage of production by the top TE in the Houston offense was 55% of total receptions and 57% of total yards in 2009. The distribution among TE production has been incredibly consistent over this period, which speaks to the volume of expected usage within the Raven offense in 2014.
THE OWEN DANIELS FACTOR
As a further illustration of Kubiak’s reliance on a multiple TE offense, the Ravens signed former Texan Pro Bowler Owen Daniels to a contract in the offseason. Daniels got off to a strong start last year, catching 24 passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns through the first five weeks, but Daniels broke his fibula in Week 5 against the San Francisco 49ers. According to Ryan Mirk of Ravens.com, “Daniels has been proving himself on the field at Ravens organized team activities (OTAs). He looks like the Daniels of old that used to give Baltimore’s defense trouble.” Kubiak has been quoted as saying that he intends to utilize both Daniels and Pitta in Baltimore’s offense. “When O.D. [Daniels] is on the field, when he’s been healthy, he’s been very productive in this league,” Kubiak said. “When you have [Daniels] and Dennis, you get balance. That’s one of the great things going on right now. We have a chance to be very balanced offensively – outside, inside with those two guys.” Daniels, who is only 31 years old, seems primed to take at least the ~30% production that has been historically earmarked from the TE2 in this offensive system. Daniels also has the advantage of being in the system for multiple years and knows exactly what is expected from Kubiak’s offense. Finally, Ravens coach John Harbaugh has guaranteed that the team has “big plans” for Owen Daniel’s role within the offense.
Ravens selected Colorado State TE Crockett Gillmore with the No. 99 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Gillmore (6-foot-5 7/8, 260) spent his freshman year at defensive end before converting to tight end and starting each of his final three seasons. Gillmore finished his career with 111 catches for 1,308 yards (11.8 YPR) and eight touchdowns. He ran 4.89 at the combine with a solid 10-foot broad jump and 33 1/2-inch vertical. Already a rock-solid blocker, Gillmore has room for passing-game growth and could serve as a weapon in the redzone given his stature. According to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, “During the Ravens' offseason practices, Gillmore has displayed sound blocking technique, a physical nature and a willingness to mix it up. He caught the ball well.” Although still a work in progress, it is not out of the question to assume that Gilmore can attain the ~17% of the production historically earmarked for the TE3 in the offensive system.
STEVE SMITH & MARLON BROWN
The Ravens added veteran Steve Smith as a free agent to fill the number two receiver role providing the leadership, toughness, and production the Ravens lost when they dealt Anquan Boldin. Smith adds yet another mouth to feed within the offense as the Ravens continue to strive for a well-balanced attack. Furthermore, the continued development of WR Marlon Brown adds another potential weapon for the offense. Undrafted out of Georgia, Brown tied a rookie franchise record with seven TDs last season, catching 49 passes for 524 yards. While in Houston, Gary Kubiak did not predominantly feature the No. 3 wideout in Houston, preferring to lean on two-tight end sets. Having said that, Brown’s 6’5” frame adds a potent red zone threat that simply cannot be overlooked.
- Kubiak's offensive game plans over the years with the Houston Texans -- and previously with the Denver Broncos -- have been attractive to athletic tight ends like Pitta
- According to reports from Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson, “Pitta will occasionally split out as an extra receiver, and could even take snaps out of the backfield,” further increasing his potential targets. Additionally, Pitta lined up in the slot for 80% of the offensive snaps during his limited playing time in 2013
- Strong rapport with Joe Flacco as an established “security blanket,” along with a well-developed chemistry
- Historic usage of multiple tight ends within Kubiak’s offensive system limit upside potential. The top tight end in the offense has accounted for 52% of the total production from the position since 2009
- Well stocked positional group with former Pro Bowler Owen Daniels and No. 99 overall pick Crockett Gillmore in the fold. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has guaranteed that the team has “big plans” for Owen Daniel’s role within the offense
- The free agent addition of Steve Smith, as well as red zone threat Marlon Brown could impact targets and red zone opportunities
Semanza's Projections: Utilizing the historic usage of the Kubiak offensive system as a baseline, it can be expected that Pitta will obtain ~52-55% of the overall production from the tight end position in 2014. Assuming 2012 as a base year, Pitta projects to 61 receptions, 680 yards and 6 TDs. With an ADP of TE#7, these projections demonstrate Pitta as slightly overvalued.
While new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s system is tailored to feature the tight end, historically it has been proven that Kubiak utilizes multiple tight ends within his offense. Since 2009, no tight end has accounted for more than 55% of production within the position. Therefore, this limits the upside potential of Dennis Pitta. Furthermore, the addition of Owen Daniels, a former pro bowler with extensive experience within the offense, will further impact the production of Pitta. Although Pitta’s ceiling is limited, he does provide a relatively high floor given the defined role within the offense and is a “safe” bet to provide low-end TE1 production.
In terms of top five potential, players such as Kyle Rudolph, Jordan Reed, Zach Ertz and Greg Olsen (all with a lower ADP than Pitta) provide greater value for the fantasy dollar albeit with greater volatility in potential fantasy production. These players do not face as fierce a competition for targets, and are also expected to be featured within their respected offensive schemes.
VIEWPOINTS FROM AROUND THE WEB
Alexander Muir, RantSports.com
In Kubiak’s double tight end system, Pitta will play the role of the “move” tight end which should result in more receptions for the 27-year-old. As a “move” tight end, Pitta will be expected to line up in-line and in the slot, so expect Kubiak to employ him all over the field. Fantasy football owners should view Pitta as a top end TE-1 who will fit well in any team, whether it be in a standard or PPR- league. Fantasy owners should look for Pitta to flourish in the new system that Kubiak will implement.
Rob Warner, FFToolbox.com
This 29-year-old is coming off an injury-plagued 2013 season (hip surgery) that limited him to just 20 catches for 169 yards over four games. Provided he doesn't suffer any setbacks, he's a player to target thanks to being a Flacco favorite in the red zone. Also, new OC Gary Kubiak's system loves tight ends and will maximize his talents. Just look at the numbers put up year-to-year by Owen Daniels in Houston (averaged 62 catches per season during his four years in Houston where he played at least 15 games). In 2012, Pitta had his best season: hauling in 61 receptions for 669 yards and seven touchdowns (finished as the seventh best fantasy TE in standard leagues). He should be a better target in PPR leagues, but remains a solid TE1 in standard formats as well (despite the presence of Daniels, who will make for a great second TE). Pitta will likely finish as the second-leading Ravens pass-catcher to Torrey Smith.