The Anatomy of a Difference Making Fantasy Tight End
As we close this series out, we finish with the unsung heroes in fantasy football, the Tight Ends.
Perhaps the biggest advantage a fantasy player can achieve is hitting on a late-round/rookie TE that becomes a stud option at the position.
Imagine drafting Mark Andrews in the third round (28th overall per DLF) in 2018 and having a stud young TE to solidify the position for the next 5+ years.
Andrews much like a couple of guys in this class had a profile that was ripe for sleeper status.
Very few talk about what matters most to predict the fantasy success of the TE position.
Is it Size? Speed? Production? Draft Capital?
As I did for the other three positions, I am going to outline which of the consensus “most predictive” measures for evaluating collegiate Tight Ends have, in fact, been predictive of high-end TE1 success.
Creating a framework to outline which characteristics of the Tight Ends in the upcoming 2021 draft either check or fail to check. Using a 6-year sample from 2015-2020, the dataset will outline which traits the difference-making fantasy TE1’s all shared. The parameters I set are as follows:
To qualify a TE finished in the top 6 scoring of fantasy points per game in any one of those 6 seasons (2015-2020).
Played a minimum of 10 games in that season.
Once again, the reason I chose Tight Ends who ACTUALLY FINISHED in the top 6 in PPG is due to the unpredictability of fantasy football. Sure, I could’ve looked at the consensus top 12 dynasty Tight Ends and used that as my sample, but chances are, half of those guys will bust and never have a top 6 finish. I set the parameter as top 6 to separate between great and good fantasy assets at the position. As we all know, the position is very shallow, and much like quarterbacks, there isn’t much difference between TE10 and TE21. The top 6 options were true “every week starters” and difference-makers, so we are only testing players who showed that type of ceiling.
For one last time, both film and analytics are integral to the evaluation of a prospect. The analytics within this article is not meant to “make a statement” about a prospect, it’s all a part of the process and establishing the prospect's pros and cons. Both film and analytics need to be considered when evaluating any positions, so this is only ½ the equation.
Of the 22 qualified Tight Ends, I chose to measure them based on what is considered the most accurate measures of fantasy success around the industry. My goal was to test conventional wisdom and see which of these measures proved to be the most accurate. The following are ranked from most common to least common below:
1. Speed Score above 100 (19/22 or 86%)
We often hear that 40 times don’t matter, but much like for running backs, they do matter for Tight Ends. Explosiveness is a rare trait for TEs to have, it’s the reason Kyle Pitts is going to be a top 5 NFL draft pick this month. Jordan Reed, Kyle Rudolph, and Zach Ertz were the outliers in this sample as the only 3 tight ends to not achieve a 100-weight adjusted speed score. Those three tight ends all received more than 110 targets in the seasons the finished in the top 6 which is often hard to project. For the most part, tight ends are a low volume position, and a high weight-adjusted speed score is indicative of a player’s ability to be efficient on limited volume.
2. Size 6’4 + and 245+ (17/22 or 77%)
Size is important at every position but specifically at TE where a coach usually needs to be able to trust you as a blocker for you to make a significant impact on the field. 18 of the 22 TEs were 6’4 or taller, 17 were 245+, and 17 were both. This size profile is a benchmark that is helpful if a TE hits it but a high-volume role such as the one's Engram, Walker & Reed received can counteract it.
3. College Dominator at 17.4 (50th percentile) or higher (17/22 or 77%)
Commanding volume is a real skill, if you were able to command volume in college (get open and catch the ball), you are more likely to be able to do it in the NFL. With Tight Ends specifically, showing an ability to produce is crucial because you are unlikely to see 100-120 targets like a WR in the NFL. That ability to be efficient is what separates you from the 20 other TEs that no one wants in fantasy.
4. Top 3 Round Draft Capital (16/22 or 73%)
This number has been challenged a bit in the past few years with George Kittle and Darren Waller becoming day 3 diamonds in the rough. But for the most part, early-round draft capital is likely a security blanket that provides a young player with opportunity for development. Especially at this position, most Tight Ends take 2-3 years to develop, and having higher draft capital will often keep a front office from replacing you quickly.
5. College Yards per Reception (14/22 or 64%)
Generally, this didn’t show to be overly predictive but if you pair this with an elite speed score of 110 or more you are left with Kelce, Waller, Kittle, Ebron, Cook, Howard & Engram. Also, the higher this number became, the more elite the fantasy ceiling was. Only 6 players had yards per reception numbers above the 70th percentile: Kelce, Waller, Andrews, Hockenson, Cook & Ebron. Overall, great if a prospect reaches this benchmark, but I would only take stock in it if it’s very high or very low.
Much like the other positions, I wanted to see if the results changed for repeat top 6 Tight Ends (TEs who finished top 6 in PPG more than once from 2015-2020) and this yielded 11 players.
T-1. Speed Score Above 100
T-1. Size 6’4+ & 245lbs+
T-1. College Dominator at 17.4 (50th percentile)
All at 9/11 or 82% the top 3 didn’t change for repeat finishers. Athleticism, Size, and Productivity are the three most important factors for a college's Tight End to reach. Jordan Reed, Zach Ertz, and Delanie Walker being the major outliers, similarly achieved their success by receiving tremendous volume despite some of their limitations.
1. Top 3 Round Draft Capital (8/11 or 73%)
Nothing changed here with Waller, Kittle, and Walker being the outliers. The interesting thing I found though was the lack of first-round tight ends that made the list more than once. Only Greg Olsen of the 6 first-round guys made it once (TJ Hockenson). Obviously, guys like TJ Hockenson could still achieve this but a lot more day two picks than day one picks on this second list.
2. College Yards per Reception above the 50th percentile or 13.0 (7/11 or 64%)
Not much changed again but as mentioned previously, those elite numbers above the 70th percentile were interesting to note. If you exclude TJ Hockenson because he’s only been in the league two seasons, 4/5 Tight ends with Yards per reception numbers above the 70th percentile made the top 6 in PPG multiple times. Only Eric Ebron failed to do so.
Overall, the results of multi-time finishers weren’t overly exciting with very few changes. Now that we’ve determined that Size, Speed, Production, and Draft Capital were the most important in that order, we can see how the current class of Tight Ends stacks up.
One thing I wanted to clarify is that I personally do not adjust 40 times at pro days by adding any time to them. It seems to skew the numbers further in my opinion, so I’d rather just be a little skeptical in general rather than just outright changing the numbers. The speed scores above have been calculated as follows: Weight x 200/ (official 40 time) ^4.
As always, these benchmarks are meant to check or fail to check certain boxes of players, using film to fill out the remaining evaluation of the player is very important also. A few things of note here:
The entire reason I outlined everything for players who had elite college yards per reception and elite weight-adjusted speed scores is because of Kyle Pitts. He meets the elite thresholds for both metrics much like Darren Waller, posting a 99th percentile speed score and 90+ percentile yards per reception. The elite ceiling is there and these numbers along with his film confirm that.
We did not receive 40 times for any prospect whose speed score has a “?” listed.
Pat Freiermuth’s time would have needed to be faster than 4.74 to achieve a 100+ weight-adjusted speed score. In my opinion, he would have run right around that had he chosen to test, aside from that he meets and exceeds every other benchmark.
Hunter Long’s is interesting across the board, especially considering that, while his most productive season was this year where he averaged 12 yards per reception. He averaged 18.2 yards per reception in 2019 with over 500 receiving yards. A better representation for him may be an average of those final two seasons to provide better context.
Brevin Jordan an inch shy of being totally clean, he also fits the “elite” profile from a production standpoint with his YPR and Dominator metrics.
Tommy Tremble has red flags all over the place.
Matt Bushman and Kenny Yeboah are probably the two best bets as sleepers in the class if they can get decent draft capital, although both have other concerns such as Bushman’s age.
Appreciate all of you for tuning into this series, if you haven’t checked out the other “anatomy of a difference-making…” articles, I encourage you to go check those out along with the other great content on the Fantasy Scouts site.