Fantasy Football Tight End Report: Could be Elite
Andrew Cooper takes a look at the top tight ends that come off the board and decide whether or not they truly are elite options for your fantasy football team.
Last week we hit you with the intro to our series and the four tight ends that are elite right now. If you haven’t read Fantasy Football Tight End Report: Who are the Elite? then I’d recommend popping over there quickly just to at least read the intro portion so you can familiarize yourself with the metrics we examined while we were doing all the heavy lifting for your fantasy team. It’s the least you could do. I mean, you realize how much junk we had to wade through? How many stats weren’t “sticky” from year to year? How many metrics are simply not helpful in determining future tight end success? How many outliers destroyed our theories?
(Here I am trying to make sense of Rob Gronkowski ’s stats before I applied aDOT & advanced scoring area metrics)
Well we did all that math, threw away our preconceived notions, re-did our rankings, and then did them again to bring you this series of articles. And, as a refresher, here’s what our scientific method says you want out of an elite tight end.
- Plays on over 90-percent of offensive snaps
- Pass blocks on only 5-to-10-percent of passing snaps
- First or second option in passing offense
- Average depth of target greater than ~seven yards
- Red zone prowess
- Speed = YAC boost
As we mentioned, the last article goes in depth on the kind of things we look at to measure these behemoths from an objective standpoint. The training wheels are off now as we need to focus on giving you the rest of the road map to obliterating your league so, if you find yourself wondering what aDOT (via AirYards.com) or Hog Rate (via PlayerProfiler.com) are, you may need to pop back over to the intro briefly just to get a good grasp on what exactly we are talking about or head directly to those sites and check them out there. And then come back here, of course – that’s the most important part.
This article here is going to examine that next tier of guys – the guys who are not necessarily elite but could enter that realm of existence. As with the last article, we are going to give you The Good, The Bad, and our Conclusion including whether or not you should buy or sell these guys based on their current ADP. With the exception of Travis Kelce , even the elite guys in the last article had their warts but covered enough of the advanced metrics to be considered elite already. These guys, as of now, have some deficiencies or some hurdles to overcome but, given the right circumstances this season, have the best chance of matching or surpassing those elite levels of production. So, let’s dig in!
The Good: There are a lot of people pegging OJ Howard as their big 2019 TE breakout and for good reason. He’s got some metrics we love to see like an incredible average depth of target of 12.4 yards. That would be on the level of Rob Gronkowski (if sustainable) which tells us that he’s going down field to catch balls. His YAC per reception of 6.9 yards is also at the elite end behind only Kittle, Engram, and Vance McDonald last year and his 4.51 forty-yard dash is on par with George Kittle ’s suggesting that YAC number was not likely an accident. One thing we tout on here is that the easiest way to increased fantasy production is by taking a guy with good per snap metrics and increasing his snap share to an elite level. With Howard filling the void of some of the vacated targets and snaps of DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries , a bump up from his 65-percent snap share in 2018 into the 80-90-percent range should solidify Howard as a TE1 you can start every week.
The Bad: Guess how many NFL teams hadthree different players that each had over100 targets last season? One. Guess how many teams had three players with over 100 targets in 2017. Zero. Over the last two years, the 2018 Giants are the only team to have three players with over 100 targets (Odell Beckham Jr– 129, Saquon Barkley – 125, Sterling Shephard– 108). And the third guy on the totem pole didn’t exactly knock your socks off at WR30. Expand that selection out to five years and there are six total teams out of 160 that had three or more players with 100+ targets (one of which, the 2014 Bears, actually had four players with 100+). In fact, here’s how those guys stacked up in half point PPR over the last five years, according to FantasyData.com. For tiering, we used tiers of 12 players for RB and WR and tiers of six for TE so green is tier one, yellow is tier red, and so on.
In there you will find one tight end who was the third target on his team but still received 100+ targets and finished top five, so it is possible, but he did finishexactly fifth. Over the last 5 years there have also been three tight ends to have less than 100 targets and finish top five at the position in half point PPR. Keep in mind, last year all three of Kelce, Ertz, and Kittle had over 210 points in this format. Gates had twelve touchdowns in 2014 which gives you a good idea of what you are up against with under 100 targets.
2017 Jimmy Graham – 95 targets, TE4, 142.50 points, player 85 overall
2016 Jimmy Graham – 95 targets, TE4, 156.80 points, player 84 overall
2014 Antonio Gates – 98 targets, TE2, 188.60 points, player 49 overall
We talked about the vacated targets above under The Good but, if you believe in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin like we do, then OJ Howard is the odd man out and likely with less than 100 looks. Being a top two option in the passing game is one of our main criteria for elite tight ends for a reason. You can be a good player with a moderate target share, but you need those elite targets to be elite. And, if Howard is going to get the 120+ targets he likely needs to be the TE1 or TE2, there are going to be some sad Evans and/or Godwin owners out there.
On top of that, Howard blocked on 10.4-percent of his passing snaps which is on the high end and his red zone (11.90-percent) and end zone (6.9-percent!) target shares on snaps he was in on were alarmingly low compared to what we want to see. He only had 6 red zone targets last year per NFLSavant.com. And some of the guys ahead of him in red zone targets (Evans – 20, Brate – 14, Godwin – 8) are still with the team this year.
(Sir, I think I found your problem right here)
The Conclusion: Sell. We expect OJ Howard to take a step forward this year or we wouldn’t have him ranked 5th and listed him in this portion of the article. He should be fairly safe as the third target on that team and there is a chance there is an injury or he just flat out gets more targets than Evans or Godwin. Each player could also just have over 100 targets – it’s certainly within the realm of possibilities as it’s happened a little over once a year over the last five years. However, we try to take a clinical approach to these types of things and six out of 160 is 3.75-percent of the time. The likely case is that Howard’s ceiling is capped compared toguys like Kelce and Engram who are arguably the number one receiving option on their team and at worst number two. OJ is at best the number two and likely the number three target in that offense. Given the vacated targets and his solid metrics, he has a medium floor and a medium-to high ceiling which makes him a fine tight end to own but, considering how close their ADP is in the fifth or sixth round, we would much rather have Engram with his sky high ceiling than Howard. If someone else jumps on Engram early and Howard slips, then by all means take him but we aren’t trying to draft the potential TE4 or TE5 in the fifth round – we are trying to draft the guy who could be the TE1 or TE2. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the ceiling is the floor for Howard this year.
The Good: Remember all that stuff we literally just said about the importance of being the first or second target in the passing game? Well Antonio Brown is gone, and he seems to have also gone crazy but that’s for another article. JuJu Smith-Schuster actually had more targets than Brown last year and the 4th most in the whole league with 171 so he really can’t absorb many more. AfterMr. Big Chest shot his way out of town along with his 165 targets, the Steelers really only brought in Donte Moncrief to compete with James Washington (who graded out as wide receiver 211 last year according to Pro Football Focus). Yes, if you expand the selection of 2018 wide receivers to 200 players, you need to click “next page” to find James Washington who was rated 5th worst, catching 44.4-percent of his passes in 14 games. Moncrief was 113 – tired with Ryan Switzer which rounds out your top four. Yikes.
As for Vance himself? Welllll, let’s check our metrics! He pass blocked on 5.2-percent of his passing snaps which is at the ideal end of the elite range. He had a 13.3-percent hog rate per PlayerProfiler which is just below our elite mark of 15-percent (and that was with AB still there), he had 7.9 yards after the catch per reception (which isn’t usually sustainable for guys in his speed range but a lot of those yards came on a 75 yard play where he sent Chris Conte to the shadow realm with a stiff arm). To back that up, he also led the tight ends in YAC/R in 2016 so the big play ability and additional YAC may not be a fluke. Stat-wise, there are certainly things to like about Vance.
Happy birthday Vance McDonald who damn near committed crime on the field last season. pic.twitter.com/2PAkMSI0Nq— Field Yates (@FieldYates) June 13, 2019
The Bad: Unlike The Elite and, as with most guys beyond this point, there is a clear cut number one target on the team besides the TE. In this case that’s obviously JuJu Smith-Schuster . There is no guarantee that even two players get 100 targets this year (last year 18 teams only had one player with 100+). We talked about the wide receivers (who we don’t particularly like outside of Juju)but the other looming threat is the combo of James Conner and Jaylen Samuels who could syphon a good number of targets out of the backfield. Also, not all of Vance’s advanced metrics are elite tier. His 11.10-percent red zone target share and 14.30-percent end zone target share are about half the percentage we see from the top tier guys and the RZ target share especially is not even within the top 20 tight ends from last year in terms of that particular stat. Somehow more concerning, his average depth of target last year was 5.3 yards which was tied for dead last with Jack Doyle among tight ends we considered fantasy relevant. In the first article of this series we literally used 2017 Jack Doyle as an example of how a low aDOT can absolutely smoke your fantasy numbers.
Conclusion: Buy. The bad we just lined up was bad, no doubt about it. But the big thing we need to lean on here is that Antonio Brown is gone, and he was not adequately replaced. AB had a 27-percent RZ target share, an absurd 46.5-percent EZ target share, and an average depth of target of 11.4 yards. Juju already had a RZ target share of 31.2-percent and EZ target share of 20.9-percent so he really can only absorb so much of that. What we are banking on here is that Vance steps up to take a portion of those scoring area chances and also helps fill the void for down field passing which would bring those three poor metrics (EZ TS-percent, RZ TS-percent, and aDOT) closer to where we want them to be. The beautiful thing about Vance is that he was TE10 last year in half point PPR while playing only 564 snaps or 55-percent of his eligible snaps. Jesse James played 563 TE snaps last year and he’s gone, baby. Gone. They didn’t bring another TE of consequence in and behind him on the depth chart is Xavier Grimble who we are secretly rooting for because his name is amazing but shouldn’t be of much consequence to McDonald. If Vance’s metrics don’t even change for the better and he simply just plays more snaps this year than last year, he is going to shoot up that tight end list in 2019. If a couple things change for the better and he gets an elite snap share of 850-900+ snaps, we could see a guy who is challenging for a top three tight end spot in 2019. And at an ADP of 91 based on FantasyPros, going off the board in the 8th round, he is an absolute must buy for us as soon Engram and OJ Howard are off the board. This is the rare occasion that we are telling you to reach for a tight end if you feel you need to. Get. This. Man.
The Good:Time for the mystery man. At 24 years old and after missing the entire 2018 season, we don’t have a recent or extensive statistical profile of Henry. Teams drastically change from year to year and two years is an NFLeternity, so we have to go off the info we do have. Luckily for Henry, what we do have is pretty good. In 2017 Henry had a 19.7-percent red zone and 21.6-percent endzone target share which are healthy numbers. He passed blocked on 9.4-percent of pass plays which is within our elite realm and he had an excellent aDOT of 9.3 yards which is right there with Travis Kelce (9.5), Eric Ebron (9.4) and Jimmy Graham (9.4) who we know are downfield pass catchers. Players going that far down field also don’t typically have great catch rates compared to their shallow running counterparts, yet Henry logged in at 70.4-percent over his two years which is actually slightly higher than Travis Kelce and just behind Ertz. His hog rate was 12.3-percent and his YAC/R was 4.9 yards which are both serviceable numbers making him a fairly well-rounded option. The second tight end on the depth chart, Virgil Green , has historically pass blocked on 20-percent to 35-percent of his pass plays despite being on a Broncos team devoid of a prominent tight end meaning he’s your quintessential pass blocker.
The Bad: Nowadays the expectations for ACL tears is for players to make “Rookie of the Year” style comebacks where they are just as good, if not better, like Adrian Peterson . The reality, per Dr. James Andrews’ group The American Sports Medicine Institute, is that 20-percent of position players never return after an ACL injury and, of those that do, you can expect an average drop in production of about a third. Similar studies have also shown that compensation injuries, like the hamstring injuries seen with Dalvin Cook , are more likely to plague players following the injury. Not all knee injuries are created equal (see the brutal injury suffered by Cameron Meredith ) so there’s really no way to say how Hunter is going to respond to a full NFL workload. He wasn’t particularly fast running a 4.72 forty-yard dash at the combine before and it’s unlikely that he’s somehow faster now than before. There’s also the matter of being a top target within the passing game. Keenan Allen is pretty much locked in as the top dog and, in Hunter’s absence, Mike Williams put up an outlandish 10 touchdowns on only 66 targets last season. There are a lot of high hopes for Mike Williams and, if Gordon ends up signing, the ceiling could be pretty low for Mr. Henry in his first year back from injury as the fourth guy in the football sharing pecking order.
Conclusion: *Buy*. We are calling this a buy but a tentative one (see the *asterisks*?). Most of the metrics are there if he is playing at his 2016-2017 level. By all reports his ACL tear was considered “clean” and we also had the benefit of seeing that he played 14 or so playoff snaps last year meaning they thought he was healthy enough to play in a game of massive importance. And that was over six months ago, so he’s also had time to really test the knee out and make sure he’s good to go. Keenan Allen has never been a big red zone guy (had 8 TDs his rookie year but never more than six in the last five years) so Henry will be battling it out against Mike Williams as the top red zone target. His current ADP is 63 per FantasyPros which is mid-6th round so we’d prefer you take Engram around there or wait on Vance McDonald but, if your league mates have also read this series and those guys are gone, he should be a pretty safe option if he slips a bit (especially if Melvin Gordon is still holding out). If Melvin does sign before the season, then we will likely update Henry to a sell in the 6th or 7th round so feel free to yell at me on twitter @CoopAFiasco if you are reading this and that has happened.
The Good:No, we did not skip anyone – we have Jared Cook here, at eight. We’ve all likely been burned by the allure of Jared Cook . The perennial off-season coach and QB speak and the big first game of the season followed by 15 weeks of disappointment. But when you take a step back and look at this career, what we really have is a guy who spent his first 7 years in anemic Jeff Fisher offenses, got hurt his one year with the Packers, then finally showed us something with the Raiders despite once again being in a sup-par offensive unit. Cook has always been a physical specimen with a 99th percentile 40 time of 4.5, a 98th percentile burst score, a 97th percentile speed score, and a 97th percentile catch radius per PlayerProfiler.com. Last year he only pass blocked on 3.8-percent of his pass snaps, had a hog rate of 13.7-percent, and had glorious RZ and EZ target shares of 26.3-percent and 32-percent meaning that he was finally recognized by someone as an elite target. His aDOT of 8.3 yards and 6.5 yards per reception show that he was actually running around down field, flashing what remains of that 4.5 speed, and he didn’t miss a game in two years after missing those games with Green Bay in 2016 with ankle issues. He goes from playing with Derek Carr and the lowly Raiders to Drew Brees and the Saints who parted ways with their starting tight end Ben Watson for an upgrade in Cook. He finished as the TE5 last year and as a Pro Bowler for the first time with the Raiders in half point PPR so he’s finally seen the mountain top and we think he may be able to hang around for a while.
Narrator: It was.
The Bad: We get it. It’s hard to get excited about a tight end who just turned 32. Especially someone who hasn’t really shown us much in his entire career. Gronk just retired and he’s only 30 so how good can Cook be at his age? On top of that, if injuries could be ruled out, I would bet the family farm that Michael Thomas finishes as the target leader for this team and not just by a small margin but with 140+ targets, minimum. You don’t give a guy that kind of money then start spreading the ball out. Alvin Kamara had 111 targets last year and he deserved every single one which almost certainly relegates Jared Cook to third fiddle. The Saints last year did not produce a third fantasy relevant pass catcher – Ben Watson had the third most targets with 46. If that is what we can expect for Cook then that’s a wrap.
Conclusion: Buy. “Buy? But what about all that mean stuff you just said?” Well, for starters, the metrics are our main focus here and Jared knocked most of those out of the park last season in a semi-competent offense. Tight end age also isn’t nearly the concern that it is for more explosive positions like RB or WR. They typically get late starts yet have longer careers. No one is concerned that our TE1, Travis Kelce , turns 30 this year. Antonio Gates had back to back 800-yard seasons at 33 and 34 including 12 TDs at 34 in 2014 (remember our TE2 outlier from earlier that had slightly less than 100 targets?). Greg Olsen had three 1,000-yard seasons in a row at 29, 30, 31. Tony Gonzalez dropped 1,000 YDs and 10 TDs at 32 then scored 35 more career touchdowns after that. Delanie Walker did it too at age 30 (890 yards), 31 (1,088 yards), 32 (800 yards), and 33 (807 yards). Jason Witten – that is all. And that’s probably enough examples. So, relax on the age stuff.
As far as the targets? In the NFL, running is the luxury of the winning team. The 2018 Saints won 13 games, nine or which were won by two scores or more and, thus, they were able to have the fifth most rushing attempts and the tenth least passing attempts. This year their season total wins over/under in Vegas is 10.5 games which indicates they will be a successful team once again, but we aren’t projecting quite the cake walk they had last year. This is going to mean less of the clock chomping we saw and more of the Drew Brees gun show we are used to. And look at what they did in the offseason. They downgraded from Mark Ingram to Latavius Murray (at least from a receiving standpoint), upgraded from Watson to Cook, then pretty much kept all the buttheads that did nothing last season. If they find themselves in a lot of games where they need to push the ball downfield, there is a world where Cook has the second most targets after Thomas and breaks 100. Not to mention, the one time over the last two years we saw a team have three guys with 100+ targets, the group included a pass catching RB similar to Kamara. Buy him with confidence in the 7th or 8th where he’s going after all the wide receivers and runningbacks you like are gone.
The Good: If a superlative existed for “Most Likely to Become Zach Ertz Someday”, Austin Hooper ’s picture would be right under it in the yearbook. Here’s Zach Ertz ’s size and workout metric’s from PlayerProfiler.com.
And here’s Austin Hooper
Pretty similar, am I right? But it’s not just that – their on-field metrics have a lot of similarities as well. Ertz’s aDOT was 7.2 last year, Hooper’s was 6.9. Ertz’s YAC/R was 3.3 and Hooper’s was 3.5 (which actually isn’t that good but being like Zach Ertz is good). Ertz has had a 71.76-percent catch rate over the last couple years while Hooper’s has been 75.5-percent. Ertz played 1,000 snaps and was the TE2 last year, Hooper played 809 snaps and was the TE6. In a vacuum, they seem eerily similar. Ertz turns 29 this season and Hooper only turns 25 so perhaps the Hoop Man is on the up and up?
The Bad: Unfortunately for us fantasy stat nerds, football isn’t played in a vacuum. And if it was, would you rather your guy play in the vacuum that has Julio Jones , Calvin Ridley , Mohammad Sanu, and Devonta Freeman or the one that has Alshon Jeffrey, Nelson Agholor , DeSean Jackson , and some combo of Jordan Howard /Miles Sanders?When it comes to targets, Julio Jones alone is less of a vacuum and more like a black hole. He had 170 last year and he’s had over 200 before. And that’s where Hooper and Ertz unfortunately diverge – the volume stats. Here are some of last year’s statistics for a couple fellas, also courtesy of The Podfather Matt Kelley and PlayerProfiler.com.
If you look closely, you will notice that one of those players has rate stats that are much higher than the other two. Within the industry, fantasy experts will often times describe the bottom two sets of stats as “not good” or “bad”.
Conclusion: Buy. This buy recommendation is based on one thing – average draft position. At pick 112 currently based on FantasyPros, Austin Hooper is going in the 10th round. That means you could start your draft RB, RB, WR, WR, RB, WR, QB, WR, RB, and then grab the tight end 6 from last year while your league mates are drafting a suspended Golden Tate or the third wide receiver on the Texans. We are making no qualms about the fact that Hooper has an uphill battle to the 100-target threshold we covet so dearly. The Falcons were very close to having three or even four players with 100 targets last year with Julio (178), Sanu (100), Ridley (92), and Hooper (89). Even projecting a regressionforSanu and the loss of Tevin Coleman ’s 46 targets, it’s hard to assign a ton to Hooper with the emergence of Ridley and the return of Devonta Freeman . You can’t even bank on a Julio injury as he’s gone two years in a row now without missing a game and has only missed 3 games in 5 years. That being said, the surroundings were similar last year and Hooper managed 89 targets and a TE6 season.
As was brought to my attention via a Reddit post on /r/FantasyFootball, the Falcons have an amazingschedule for passing this year as they don’t play a game outdoors until week 11. In fact, they only play three games outdoors and one of them is week 17 when rational fantasy seasons are over. Seriously, if your championship game is scheduled for week 17, reach out to your commissioner right now and politely explain to him why he or she is stupid. Matt Ryan ’s splits in a dome vs. outside unsurprisingly fantastic so the dirty birds should be able to sling the ball with comfort all year. And who knows – maybe with opposing secondaries focusing on Julio and Ridley, Hooper could carve out a bigger chunk of the target share than we expect. At his ADP, when you’ve already filled the rest of your starting positions and even some bench spots, he’s a fairly easy buy with a pretty safe floor. Just don’t expect him to be a top 3 tight end without some help from the fantasy gods. And by help I mean a trade or injury involving one or more of those three wide receivers.
(Mama always did say the fantasy gods work in mysterious ways)
And that wraps up our list of guys who could potentially become ELITE this season. Next week we’ll give you the list of guys to stay away from completely, regardless of ADP, and then we will provide the grand finale and everyone’s favorite – the late round tight end steals. Before we go, I’d like to take a brief moment to mention Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference, Player Profiler, The Football Guys Database, NFL Savant, and AirYards.com. This second level of number crunching and analysis was greatly facilitated by their providing of the numbers so check them out.