• Andrew Woodruff

Digging for Top Five TE Goldmines

Andrew Woodruff / @ff_awwoodruff33

Tight Ends are such a pivotal force when it comes to fantasy lineups. Many teams strive for one of two strategies. Either get a top five level guy early in the draft or punt the position all together. That is a fine strategy as some people reach in that middle tier for players that end up hurting more than either of the other strategies. As the season approaches, I decided to go back through the past five years worth of tight end data to see what separates an elite tight end finish from the struggle of weekly matchup streaming. For this exercise, I want to share the data results, the athletic traits, and who can we keep an eye on for 2020. 

Data for the past five seasons (2015-2019):

The following five tables represent the statistical data from 2015 through 2019 seasons:

Once I broke it all down, there was a lot of numbers I could look at so I started breaking it apart using my fun stats class breakdown of Mean, median, mode. As a refresher, I am a math teacher so my teaching side is coming out. Sorry for all the numbers coming back. Stick with it!

I think we can take away a lot of interesting notes from this chart. Looking at receptions, we see tight ends need to average around 80 catches to have a great chance of top five territory. The lower minimum shows they have gotten away with a slightly smaller number with the minimum and lower quartile showing in the upper sixties. That needs to be prefaced with the fact those were the same players who led in the touchdown department which is not very sticky year to year. I know everyone wants a person who catches the ball a ton, but notice how the mean, median, and upper quartile are in the eighties. What that shows for me is it will be very difficult for many tight ends to ever reach double digits as the better ones finish close to ninety or so. 

Up next we can break down targets for the elite tight ends. The mean and median (119.9 & 117 respectively) shows they needs to be at or above 110 targets each season to fully maximize on their chances. With the mean and lower quartile fairly close, most of these talents got around 110 to 120ish targets, outside of a few instances where the number went way up drastically. Even hitting triple digits is a big plus as Mark Andrews and Evan Engram were the only ones to not reach that plateau. There were three additional players to receive less than 110 looks, but that is only five players of these twenty-five total. As target share percentage is a close tie-in to TE targets, eighteen of them had north of twenty percent so we want a team willing to allocate a good chunk of attempts towards the big men. 

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

The reason I want the tight end targets was to compare with the next best player on the team. To clarify, I focused on the next player with the most targets for their team. Of these twenty-five entries, only five were not tied or leading the team in targets which makes sense when we have guys like Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Delanie Walker with multiple appearances on the list. For those who were second, the largest difference was 30 targets with Jimmy “TD machine” Graham. The average came out to be behind by thirteen targets factoring in Jimmy’s number. As I stressed before, if you do not get a tight end leading the team in targets, they need to be a close second. As long as your tight end is meeting that threshold of about 110+ targets, it was okay that the second target was also in the low 100s. 

Next came a rather interesting turnout with the yards metric. The mean and median showed the middle of the pack to come out to slightly above 1000 yards but the minimum and lower quartile showed the gap was much closer for the bottom of the pack than from the lower quartile to middle of the pack. Again we can look back and see the lower yardage guys will also have higher touchdown numbers while the upper yardage guys were only about one hundred yards higher than the middle of the pack. So coming out with around 900+ yards is another solid aiming point in today’s NFL. 

The last three stats I can wrap up together as we look at yards per reception, gains of 20+ yards, and TDs. With yards per reception, the keynote is the bare minimum was ten yards so they need to be athletic enough to consistently be challenging for a full first down every play. The upper elites were above thirteen so it just needs to be double digits to be safe. Tying back again into the athletic side of tight ends, gains of 20+ yards showed most were getting double-digit big plays with the average right around fourteen. Finally, I really liked the last stat involving TDs because it further proves to not bank on high numbers there. The lower twenty-five percent scored five times but the mean average was seven and the “upper elites” came in around nine. While the scoring will definitely boost someone, it shows to expect around five to seven touchdowns leading to more emphasis on the other categories. Next up, the athletic profiles. 

Athletic Traits:

Next up is looking at what helps these guys with their athletic builds. Of the 25 entries, we had six names repeat multiple times: Kelce, Kittle, Walker, Gronk, Ertz, Olsen.

Everyone else has made a single appearance: Waller, Andrews, Ebron, Cook, Engram, Rudolph, Graham, Reed, Barnidge.

I went through and color-coded so that any trait with a ninety-plus percentile was green, eighty-plus was a burnt yellowish-orange, yellow was sixty and up which was my minimum of what I wanted, and then light red for above fifty and solid red if below. 

The results are really straight forward: 

13 of 15 are upper-level 40-yard dash, 

13 of 15 are upper-level speed score,

9 of 15 are upper-level burst score,

12 of 15 are upper level on catch radius,

And 8 of 15 upper level on college dominator.

If we look at the numbers they displayed coming into the league, we see our best bets were the athletic giants who excelled in at least three to four of these. The only outlier is Kyle Rudolph who was not very elite in any category. Since we know tight ends take time, a good rule is find the most athletic guys and stash them on the taxi to see what happens. 

The Top 5 Challengers of 2020:

Finally, let’s wrap it up with the fun of seeing who can challenge for a top 5 spot based on the criteria of who can hit around 80 catches with 110+ targets, close to or leading team in targets (one or no elite WRs), 900+ yards, and explosive (focus in on hitting three of five athletic categories of 60% or more).

We obviously will return the same challengers from last season with Kelce, Kittle, Ertz, Waller (better but young WR core), and Andrews. Andrews has athletic concerns and a crazy high TD percentage, but an uptick in targets will help him clear the mark on receptions, targets, yards. Next comes the other challengers.

Tyler Higbee: He needs to increase his receptions and targets by 20+ each to help achieve his success of increasing the yards another 166 to hit the 900+ threshold. He is explosive with double-digit twenty-yard gains. The big man does have an incomplete profile, but only his dominator of the three parts available was above sixty percent. Combine that with I do not believe he can become a top-two target with Woods and Kupp leaves me leaning with no top 5 upside. 

(Photo Credit: John McCoy/Getty Images)

Evan Engram: Engram already made the list and shows he is super athletic. He proved before he can put up the low end of the numbers needed and should have a chance again with no clear WR1 when looking at Slayton, Tate, and Shepard. Saquon will be a factor, but the upside is there.

Hunter Henry: Henry does meet three of the five athletic requirements. His team and QB have a history of allocating targets to the position. If healthy, he may can reach the necessary jump in targets, receptions, and yards to go with his talent. However, it comes down to whether Mike Williams can be anything as the two appear close in potential with Keenan Allen firmly in the first spot.

(Photo Credit: Harry How/Getty Images)

Going through the next several guys of Hurst, Jared Cook, Hooper, and Gronk, they all have several different red flags that say avoid shooting for the upside. The fewer targets as the #3 or lower targets will force a high TD dependency which is not worth the risk. Going through the rest of the top 25 ranked, we need to add Goedert, Ebron, Jarwin, Ian Thomas, Greg Olsen, and OJ Howard. Each of them are buried behind other players worth targets with little room to really do much besides steal some TDs away. 

That leaves me with Gesicki, Fant, Hockenson, Jonnu, Doyle, Herndon, and Irv Smith Jr. Gesicki is the freaking definition of athlete (seriously check his player profiler ratings) but is lacking in the stats category some. While there was some QB shuffling for some games, Gesicki needs to show he can be the #2 option to get the extra opportunities to reach the other needed metrics. He does have the upside if that offense takes a step forward this season. Fant is the same type of athletic freak and it showed already as a rookie. Sutton should be the Alpha leaving Fant to just beat out Jeudy/ Lindsay to earn the share he needs to be top-five material. Also worth the risk. The other five guys each fall into a similar category with some not as much talent level wise but the door for opportunity is there if they can earn the top two-volume role. Of them, Hockenson under pass-happy Stafford, Jonnu with only AJB, and Herndon with no established alpha (maybe slot receiver Crowder) seem like good bets for 2020.