Fantasy Football Tight End Preview: Injury Accountability
Andrew Cooper examines the tight end position and breaks down how we should factor injury risk into our draft strategy.
“Don’t bank on injuries”. It is smart fantasy advice. Betting on an injury to a specific player is a low percentage game. In your mind, it is so easy to see Ezekiel Elliot potentially getting hurt and his handcuff, Tony Pollard, winning you a fantasy championship. And it could happen. But the reality is that we have no idea who will get hurt or when and you can’t hold EVERY backup running back so you are more likely just wasting a valuable roster spot in a seasonal league. The one issue with this injury rule however is that it is repeated so often that some fantasy gamers may dismiss the potential effects of injury entirely when projecting their range of outcomes for any given player. We don’t know who will get injured, but we know without a doubt that players will get hurt. And injury is a massive catalyst for change in the fantasy world. So, we’re here to set the record straight on that. Our rule is more like, “don’t bank on a specific injury but still consider the effect of potential injuries in your valuation”. Confusing, I know. Let me explain.
(Don’t consider potential injuries but consider them, got it!)
With a linear depth chart, injuries have an obvious effect in fantasy. Dak Prescott gets hurt, Andy Dalton comes in. There ya go. With target distribution, which we discussed in depth last week as the intro to our Rob Gronkowski article, the effect works a bit differently. Matt Kelley of PlayerProfiler.com and the RotoUnderworld podcast often discusses an idea known as the Law of the Conservation of Targets, mostly in the context of one player leaving a team in the offseason and other incumbent players then absorbing those targets. And the concept is fairly simple – the team should throw the same amount so, with the absence of a top target for whatever reason, the remaining players should see increased targets. And unlike the linear depth chart we discussed at quarterback, that target vacuum could be filled by one player but often times the targets are dispersed among multiple guys.
This concept can, of course, be applied to the effects of a potential injury on target distributions for tight ends. Though, from team to team, that affect is not going to be the same depending on who gets hurt and who else is on the roster. For instance, let us take the subject of our article last week, Rob Gronkowski . His projected fantasy ceiling is hampered by the presence of Chris Godwin and Mike Evans who combined for 239 targets even while missing a combined five games. A scary proposition. But, if either one of those guys gets hurt, they are easily vacating 100+ targets and Gronk is competing with the likes of fellow tight end OJ Howard, incumbent WRs Scotty Miller and Justin Watson , and rookies Tyler Johnson and Ke’Shawn Vaughn. We like Gronk’s odds there. And the main difference between “handcuffing” and accounting for the possibility of injury in our valuation is that we aren’t talking about betting on one specific guy getting hurt – an injury to either Godwin or Evans has a similar effect and both players were injured just last season. That being said, we have some better examples than even Gronk coming later as the hot young quarterback in Tampa Bay, Tom Brady , has a history of spreading the ball around a lot better than this guy pictured below.
(Ws now available in backup Cajun and Creole flavors.)
On the other side of the spectrum a guy like Dan Arnold on the Cardinals does not have that potential boost factored into his value. As far as we know, he is the top tight end on the Cardinals depth chart. But on the target depth chart (or as I like to refer to it as, the target totem pole) he’s definitively behind DeAndre Hopkins , Christian Kirk , and Larry Fitzgerald , so he’s battling with the likes of Kenyan Drake , Andy Isabella , and possibly Hakeem Butler if he ever plays football. We spelled out extensively why being a top two target is important in this article so, where Gronk may be one injury to any one of two players away from relevance, Arnold is an injury to multiple players away and even then he’d have target competition that he’s not clearly superior to. It is not something worth factoring into his value unless it happens, in which case he is almost certainly already available on waivers.
Strangely, on the complete opposite end of the world, we do not really need to factor in the potential for injury for the guys already at the very top. Does an injury to a 49ers wide receiver really mean more targets for George Kittle ? Does an injury to Hollywood Brown boost Mark Andrews when he was already leading the team in targets? Perhaps marginally, but not enough to effect how we look at them. Travis Kelce already got 136 targets last year so, in the event of an injury to another player, those targets will likely trickle down, not up. Plus, what are you going to do – move him from tight end 1 to tight end super 1?
In between that somewhere there are guys like Jared Cook where an injury to Alvin Kamara or Emmanuel Sanders may help but really only an injury to Michael Thomas is the thing that would let the flood gates open. Banking on one guy getting hurt is handcuffing and we do not like that. We want to at least double those odds before we consider it. What we are looking for are the few guys where the targets are heavily concentrated at the very top with little competition behind them where any single injury to one of multiple guys provides a large boost to the tight end. Now, I want to be clear - you don’t draft these guys simply because they are in this position but, if you are deciding between two guys and it is close, it could be a tie breaker to know that one has that dark and mysterious upside. When Antonio Brown weaseled his way off the Raiders, Darren Waller was left hiding there in plain sight in terms of that target vacuum so we want to do our best to identify where those similar black holes could open up. This list of guys we put together are all candidates for that effect if there is an injury to any one of at least two guys. So, let us get to it!
Austin Hooper , Cleveland Browns
Austin Hooper is in the enviable position of being a young, pro bowl tight end who was just made the highest paid tight end in the game. For fantasy however, he is in the unenviable position of being behind two of the leagues most premier target hogs in Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry . Last year Jarvis got 138 targets and Odell got 133 and those were actually down years for those two target-wise. Because of the rules we discussed last article regarding target distribution, we are likely fading Hooper at his current ADP. As we laid out, over the last five years, 97.5% of teams have had only two guys or less get over 100 targets. Those two wide receivers, when healthy, are getting over 100 which simply hurts his ceiling. But there is no denying that an injury to either one of them releases a title wave of targets that do not have much of a place to splash down aside from Hoop. Battling for those targets would be the aforementioned highest paid tight end in the league, then David Njoku , a split backfield, and these guys.
(Image provide by OurLads.com, annotation by me)
This isn’t a handcuff situation where you are betting on a specific guy to get hurt. An injury to either Jarvis or Odell means Hooper goes from “unlikely to get 100 targets” to “almost certainly getting over 100 with immediate top five tight end potential”. And one of those players is Odell Beckham Jr. who is prone to soft tissue injuries and has almost been begging for a suspension or trade with his behavior.
Mike Gesicki , Miami Dolphins
We have to mention this one next for one obvious reason – one of the guys is already injured. Undrafted free agent Preston Williams is attempting to recover from the second ACL tear of his football playing career as we speak. When Williams got hurt last year, Gesicki assumed the second target role, managing to finish the year with 89 behind only DeVante Parker ’s 128. If we are assuming Parker and Williams are the top dogs (which I personally am not but a lot of people are), an injury to either catapults Gesicki into the top two and one of them already has a serious knee injury. And his second one at that. The Dolphins added ZERO relevant wide receivers, runningbacks, or tight ends through the draft and free agency so it would basically be Gesicki battling with the likes of Allen Hurns , Albert Wilson , and Patrick Laird for those targets. Gesicki played the highest percentage of slot snaps for any tight end last year which is a welcome change from the terrible usage he saw under Adam Gase his rookie year (as we discussed in a previous article). We already like Mike but the tantalizing boost potential from an injury to either wide receiver is just gravy on top.
(Pictured here: us pretending it is okay to hope for an injury as long as it is not to one specific person)
TJ Hockenson, Detroit Lions
This one is good but not necessarily as nice of a lotto ticket as the top two. The target hogs at the top are not nearly as target happy as Odell and Juice. Historically speaking, they both run deeper routes which typically translates to less targets overall than your close to mid-range guys. So, an injury to either Kenny Golladay or Marvin Jones , while freeing up likely ~100 targets, isn’t as powerful of a catalyst as an injury to say Jarvis Landry . There is also more competition on the Lions than the Browns – the presence of Danny Amendola is a thorn in the side of Hockenson owners plus they just drafted DeAndre Swift. But, last year, 363 of the Lions 550 targets went to Kenny G, Amendola, Jones, and Hock so the targets as we know it are fairly highly concentrated at the top. Given that info, Hockenson is more of a safe play in fantasy that would get a decent boost from an injury to any of Golladay, Jones, or Amendola whereas Hooper is in a tougher spot to start out in terms of his battle to be a top two target on the team but would become a rocket ship with an injury to either Odell or Juice. As with a lot of fantasy football, your choice between the two should be based on your aversion to risk – play it safe with Hock or shoot for the moon with Hoop. Or just take Gesicki.
Ricky Seals-Jones , Kansas City Chiefs
We said that we don’t love strict handcuffs at any position but, since we are on the topic, there is only one straight up tight end handcuff that could have some value in either very deep seasonal leagues or dynasty leagues and that is Ricky Seals-Jones . Dallas Goedert would obviously get a boost with an injury to Ertz but he is not a true handcuff in the sense that Goedert himself currently has standalone fantasy value, finishing around tight end 10 last year. Unlike Goedert, RSJ is only unlocked by a Kelce injury, but a Kelce injury might honestly make him more valuable than even Goedert would be with an Ertz injury.
RSJ himself is your quintessential pass catching tight end. On both the Browns and the Cardinals, he pass-blocked on around 4% of his pass plays and played 50% of his snaps from the slot. Over the last two years he has only been asked to run block 179 times while running 533 pass routes. His average depth of target was 10.1 in 2018 and 11.5 in 2019 so he runs real routes down field. There is no question what his skill set is – he was not brought in to block in two tight end sets like Deon Yelder . Travis Kelce has historically been a healthy and consistent player so it is a complete blind handcuff play but it is pretty clear that the Chiefs were thinking that exact thing when they brought him in – if Kelce goes down, who is going to replace that tight end pass game production? So, in dynasty or deep best ball leagues you could do a lot worse than the 25-year-old cousin of Eric Dickerson lurking behind a tight end that turns 31 this season in the league’s premier pass attack.
Statistics for this article were provided by the author, Andrew Cooper, with help from ProFootballFocus.com, PlayerProfiler.com, ProFootballRefence.com, AirYards.com, and SharpFootballStats.com. Follow Coop on Twitter @CoopAFiasco.