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Pairing statistics with insightful context can uncover fantasy value in pre-draft prep. Delivering the insightful context is the difficult part. Three data points that have potential value for fantasy owners are the percentage of targets, yards, and touchdowns that pass catchers earn from their quarterback during the year.
This week's Gut Check column will examine these three statistical outcomes for tight ends between 2014-2016. This information will also be paired with ADP, consistency data, and other salient points that will help readers identify some of the safest options in 2017 fantasy drafts.
ABOUT CONSISTENCY DATA
I began publishing Consistency Data in 2004. What differentiates my examination of "fantasy consistency" from many is that I don't use standard deviation as the method because this stat's purpose is to measure the variance of a process. When I was posting a lot of consistency analysis in the early-to-mid 2000s, the few others who were analyzing consistent performance were valuing low standard deviations because it proved to them that the process is under control. When applied to fantasy football, standard deviation doesn't help us see the type of consistency that a fantasy owner desires from a player.
Standard deviation doesn't take into account what we really want to know: How consistently a player reaches at least the desired amount of fantasy points per game. "At least" are the two key words. Strict adherence to standard deviation as the process punishes players who score a lot more than the baseline target—even when they consistency deliver to that baseline.
For example, here's a look at the 2016's top PPR tight ends with a minimum scoring average of 8 points per game and ranked by lowest to highest standard deviation:
Lowest Standard Deviation Among 2016 PPR Tight Ends (Minimum of 8 fantasy points per game average)
Gary Barnidge, Eric Ebron, and Julius Thomas are talented players and certainly options worth consideration for your roster, but their low standard deviation is also a reflection that they lacked great upside to their game last year. At the bottom of this list is Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed, and Zach Ertz, who averaged between 2-5 additional points per game and not only had a higher percentage of elite performances, they also had a lower percentage of subpar efforts.
This is why I set tier baselines by generating average values for elite, WR1, WR2, WR3, and subpar categories based on the fantasy years in question. This method doesn't punish consistently high scoring options because their massive game in Week 4 blew their tight little standard deviation figure.
Tight End PRODUCTION SHARES
Before digging into consistency data, let's examine production shares between 2014-2016, including the top 36 tight ends with the highest percentages of targets, yards, and touchdowns in their offenses. These are the columns highlighted in yellow, green, and blue below.
Tight End Target Shares 2014-2016
Insights from this data:
- Heavily targeted tight ends produce everywhere else: 27 of 36 (75 percent) target share leaders were also leaders in yardage and touchdown shares.
- Count on targets translating to yardage for tight ends: Only 3 of 36 (8 percent) of the leading target share tight ends failed to make this list for yardage share.
- Repeat performers: 9 tight ends accounted for 21 of the 36 spots on this three-year list. This is one of the reasons why I tout a top tight end as an "anchor" for dynasty builds.
- Most high-target options earn time in the slot: Only C.J. Fiedorowicz and Jermaine Gresham aren't known commodities in the slot.
- More than one-third of these seasons came from tight ends who are often split to the perimeter.
- Tight ends with a yardage share within a range of 30 percent were likely the primary receiver in the offense: Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce, and Rob Gronkowski are the trio that qualifies.
- Profiling the skills of the tight ends on this list:
- 71 percent of the tight ends on this list have (or had) yards after catch skill (YAC).
- 88 percent have at least competent route skills versus man and zone.
- 46 percent are known commodities for rebounding 50/50 targets.
- 92 percent do significant work from the slot.
- 33 percent earn meaningful time split wide for the formation.
- Percentages of target-yardage-touchdown shares you're seeking from a fantasy starter if you're projecting stats at home: Based on that tight end's skill profile, quarterback, and offense, if you can't realistically see the tight end earning at least 14 percent of his quarterback's targets, yardage, and touchdowns, it's unlikely that he's a reliable fantasy starter.
CONSISTENCY AND ADP
The table below includes production share data, ADP info, and it's sorted by specific consistency data in the following order of priority:
- Elite (Highest to lowest)
- TE1 (Highest to lowest)
- Sub Par (Lowest to highest)
While the ADP is for 2017 and the other data ranges from 2014-2016, there are few players on the list below who won't be considered for fantasy lineups on a weekly basis.
TE Target Share And Consistency 2014-2016 And 2017 ADP
Late Round Flyers
Antonio Gates is older, slower, and recently demoted to a situational role for the emerging Hunter Henry. He also earned 21 percent of the Chargers' passing touchdowns in 2016, 19 percent of Philip Rivers' yardage, and 17 percent of the quarterback's targets while Hunter Henry was posting TE1 production as a rookie.
It's likely that last year's two-tight end alignments were used far more often due to injuries to Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead, and Travis Benjamin. However, don't expect the Chargers to do away with them—especially on known run downs and in the red zone where play action passing and smart scheming can create easy scores. Hunter Henry benefitted tremendously from this game planning for wide open targets in the role that Gates might assume.
Gates is appropriately valued as a 15th-round pick in summer drafts because Henry is the starter and the emerging talent. As much as I like Jeff Cumberland as a veteran reserve, Gates will be the most targeted tight end once again if Henry gets hurt. I wouldn't recommend drafting Gates unless your rosters are 20-25 deep because I think he'll be available as a waiver wire speed dial as a bye-week match-up special until the Chargers offense needs to use him more due to injuries.
The starting tight end role for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a good one to monitor this summer. The presumptive starter has been O.J. Howard. The rookie is a freakish athlete whose blocking was an asset at Alabama. Buccaneers beat writers have recently posed the idea that Brate may retain his starting role to begin the year.
If you understand the learning curve for rookie tight ends in this league, and truly studied Howard's game, this potential development isn't a shocker. Of the four offensive skill positions, tight end is the second-most difficult transition from college to the NFL.
Being a good blocker and route runner in college is far different than the pros. The position requires much greater precision with technique, timing, and communication with teammates and rookies rarely adjust seamlessly over the course of the summer. Unless the Buccaneers use Howard as a slot receiver split from the formation or disguised as an H-Back (think Hunter Henry last year) far more often than an inline tight end with true block/route responsibilities that matter on the play side of the formation, look for Brate to handle the more difficult role this year.
Howard wasn't used much in the slot or on the perimeter at Alabama. It's not to say that he can't do the work there, but the film doesn't show him targeted like Jimmy Graham, Jordan Reed, Evan Engram, David Njoku, Travis Kelce, Greg Olsen, or Rob Gronkowski. We didn't see him targeted as a rebounder. Howard's targets and touches came on short screens, dump-offs, crossing routes, end-arounds, and plays up the seam.
Howard is a talented enough player that he should develop into the starter, but the unknown is how long it will take. Knowing that this is an important and difficult variable, monitor training camp and be prepared for the possibility that Brate, who earned 28.6 percent of Jameis Winston's touchdown passes last year, could present tremendous value as a low-end TE1 at a TE19 price.
Ben Watson tore his Achilles last year, but the good Dr. Jene Bramel routinely tells Thursday Night Audible listeners that this injury isn't as difficult to rehab as it used to be. Watson has always been a tremendous athlete and his recovery has been smooth. For those with short memories, Watson was a Pro Bowl player and TE1 for the Saints in 2015. The Ravens lost Dennis Pitta to a career-ending injury this spring, Max Williams is a complete bust thus far, and Nick Boyle isn't a top athlete at the position. It leaves former receiver and emerging talent Darren Waller and the veteran Watson.
Considering how much Joe Flacco values the big slot and tight end roles, Watson is a worthwhile flyer as TE39 in 2017 drafts. He may not earn 18.75 percent of Flacco's touchdowns the way he did with Drew Brees during his 74-catch season, but if Marlon Brown can deliver a double-digit TD season as a big slot, I think Watson is worth monitoring.
One player not on this list but had a strong share of touchdowns for Andrew Luck during the past three years was the oft-injured Dwayne Allen. Now in New England, it's worth considering Allen late as a matchup play in the red zone for Tom Brady. It's also worth considering his upside as an every-down second tight end in the Patriots offense if he and Gronkowski stay healthy. Many of you may be tired of hoping that the New England Patriots will reprise it's Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez, two-TE fantasy dominance, but Bill Belichick's personnel choices reveal that he's not. Allen is a nice late-round upside pick.
Coby Fleener disappointed many fantasy owners last year because they presumed if Ben Watson could catch 74 passes and earn a Pro Bowl spot, how could Fleener do worse? I've never been a big fan of Fleener's prospects, but I didn't expect this kind of struggle, either. Even so, I'm willing to give Fleener another chance. Two years ago, he accounted for 20 percent of Andrew Luck's touchdowns and 16 percent of the quarterback's yardage. The target share was a little low with the Colts, which is indicative of Fleener having a boom-bust quality to his fantasy game.
If Alvin Kamara starts strong and Ted Ginn performs well enough on vertical routes that Willie Snead and Mike Thomas don't miss Brandin Cooks, Fleener could be an afterthought in this offense. However, I believe Fleener should deliver no worse than borderline TE1 production and his mid-TE1 upside with Brees at the helm makes him worth a shot as the TE15 off the board in summer drafts.
Zach Ertz has developed into a competent starter. Carson Wentz leaned on Ertz during his rookie season, delivering 25 percent of his touchdown passes and nearly 22 percent of his yardage to the tight end. Keep in mind that as Wentz's production hopefully increases, those percentages won't likely be as strong in Ertz's favor.
One of the areas where Wentz must improve is vertical accuracy. He has never had pinpoint accuracy as a deep thrower. The addition of Alshon Jeffery should help Wentz because Jeffery's rebounding prowess won't require Wentz to be perfect. Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor have skill in the vertical game, but they will require more pinpoint accuracy from Wentz that he hasn't shown.
Regardless of Wentz's progress, I doubt there are any factors involving personnel that will diminish Ertz's importance to this offense unless the offensive line is decimated with injuries and the team needs to keep a tight end at the line of scrimmage for pass protection. Ertz lacks top-5 TE upside without things really going wrong with Philadelphia's receiving corps, but he's a solid choice as a TE1 available at a small bargain as TE11.
Kyle Rudolph had a top-five season with a bad offensive line and a newly acclimated Sam Bradford throwing to him and he's leaving boards as the TE9. Rudolph's biggest issue as a pro has always been his health or the team keeping him in-line to block on passing downs. Last year, the Vikings let him loose and he stayed healthy.
If the lack of trust in Rudolph has to do with injury or a lot of talented options with similar value, I get it. And I think that's the benefit for fantasy owners who don't strike early at the position in summer drafts. The position is a rich one this year—at least before training camp injuries claims some victims.
Martellus Bennett seems like an odd choice as a boom-bust candidate. As the second tight end in the Patriots rotation, he earned 25 percent of Tom Brady's touchdowns and nearly 20 percent of the quarterback's passing yardage. Now that he'll be the starting tight end in Green Bay, why wouldn't he have an even better season?
My concerns are with consistency and target share. Bennett's #1 TE consistency percentage was only 50 percent last year and I don't see a clear path to targets in Green Bay. Jordy Nelson will get his again this year, I don't think Davante Adams was a fluke last year, and Randall Cobb had a down year last year. Jared Cook was the No. 36 tight end in fantasy last year, so this tells me that Aaron Rodgers and this offense isn't capable of supporting more than 2-3 starting-caliber fantasy options unless the Packers defense is so bad that Rodgers has to throw every down to stay in games.
As much as I like Bennett's abilities, his fantasy value is dependent on the distribution of targets among Nelson, Adams, and Cobb. I don't see Nelson's production dropping lower than low-end WR1 value. Adams could easily see a decline to WR2 value, which then gives either Cobb (WR3) or Bennett (low-end TE1) a shot as fantasy starters. If one of this trio of receivers gets hurt, Bennett's value could climb as high as mid-range TE1 territory, maybe the low end of the top-5 at the position. If the trio stays intact and productive, Bennett might disappoint as a high-end fantasy TE2.
Jimmy Graham as TE6 available after the fifth round based on ADP? Really? This tells me that many fantasy owners haven't considered the context of Seattle's offensive woes last year, including Russell Wilson playing through difficult injuries behind a line that might as well have been a neon sign giving away free shots as part of Seahawk happy hour for defenses.
Despite these problems, and Graham returning from a serious injury, Graham earned 28.6 percent of Wilson's touchdowns and nearly 22 percent of the quarterback's yardage as the No. 2 fantasy tight end in 2016. This range of production share (17 percent target share, 22 percent yardage share, and 28 percent TD share) looks a lot like Graham's final season in New Orleans (19 percent, 18 percent, and 30 percent).
Even so, fantasy owners see 4-5 more attractive options. The understandable arguments include players like Jordan Reed, Rob Gronowski, Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker, and Travis Kelce. I may see the validity of these players having more value, but the gap between (excluding Gronkowski's upside) these options and Graham are minuscule at best.
Moreover, these players all had some of their strongest seasons with healthy quarterbacks throwing to them last year while Graham was coming off an injury and his surrounding talent was in a difficult situation. The perception may lean towards the other players, but the context of last season and Graham's performance tells me that fantasy owners are getting a bargain when Graham drops to the fifth round.
More of The Same
Travis Kelce's three-year target shares are some of the strongest at the position. Without a healthy Jeremy Maclin, Kelce was the primary option in this offense. With Maclin waived, I don't expect any receiver to supplement Maclin's absence with fantasy starter production in 2017. Kelce is a slam-dunk top-five TE this year and likely an easy top-three option.
Jordan Reed's 37.9 percent TD share in 2015 was a fantastic outlier that dropped to 24 percent last year. If you buy the idea that the loss of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon will leave a void that only Reed will fill, then Reed is your bet on 2017 greatness. I'm not buying it because I believe Terrelle Pryor is an upgrade to Garcon and Jackson as a player who can get deep, get open over the middle, and win in the red zone all in one package.
I also think Washington will continue to employ two-tight end alignments with Vernon Davis to find easy targets for Reed and the other receivers. It means that this offense will spread the ball around enough that Reed is a strong candidate as a top-three fantasy tight end, but not a guy I'd reach for with the hope that he dominates the position with stats that make you a league winner.
If you draft Rob Gronkowski and get the healthy version capable of delivering a 50 percent rate of Elite games and 80-90 percent TE1 rate of quality performances, you're getting a strong WR2 in a TE1 spot, which affords you a shot at placing more firepower at receiver in your lineup. I don't know if the cost is worth it. As pick 20 in PPR leagues, you're counting on a player who has missed a lot of time to be healthy as your second-round pick at a position that appears strong this year.
I get the appeal, but I'd monitor the camps of Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Todd Gurley, DeAndre Hopkins, and Doug Baldwin before making my decision, who are available within the same range—especially when Kelce, Reed, and Graham are available 12-44 picks later. Those three options have enough upside that it's not that difficult for me to pass up Gronkowski.