The Output of Free Agent Tight Ends
What happens when tight ends become free agents and move on to a new team? This article will look back over the last few years to find this answer and sum up the findings.
2018 Headline Free Agents
Jimmy Graham finished off his time with the Seahawks following the 2017 season, in a year where he found himself taking the role as a red-zone target machine. He finished with 24 targets inside of the 20-yard line where he converted 10 of these into touchdowns. Not only did he lead the league in red-zone targets (any position) in 2017 he scored the most touchdowns of any Seahawk that season. Seattle only scored 4 rushing touchdowns (3 of which were scored by Russell Wilson) all season so it is hardly surprising Wilson looked to his tight end around the goal-line.
Before the 2018 season began Graham would move to Green Bay and sign a contract for $30million ($18m guaranteed) for 3 seasons, where his yardage totals would increase, however, the touchdowns would come down quite dramatically from 10 to 2. His red-zone targets which had been at such a high level the previous season also fell off and he would only receive 8 from Aaron Rodgers. This may not be too surprising as Davante Adams would continue to be the go-to guy around the goal-line.
Although the table below shows that Jimmy Graham moved down to become a TE 2 following the 2018 season, he was only one five-yard touchdown away from being a TE1 once again.
Trey Burton won a Super Bowl with the Eagles in 2017 against New England (throwing the famous ‘Philly special’ touchdown to Nick Foles, Burton would finish as a TE3 which was to be expected due to the fact he would be competing for game time behind Zach Ertz -who would finish the season with the top number of catches and yards for the team- and Brent Celek would have a similar number of targets as Burton.
2018 would bring a $32million 4-year contract with the Chicago Bears. He moved from a team whose top target was a fellow tight end to a team with an elite wide receiver in Allen Robinson who would be the top target despite playing only 13 games. However, Burton would have the tight end work for himself and this would allow him to more than double his targets, catches, and yards on his way to jumping from finishing as a TE3 to a TE1.
Ebron finished third in all the categories in the above tables in Detroit. He would finish only behind Golden Tate and Marvin Jones in receiving yards, who both ended with 1000+ yards. 2017 was his 4th season with the Lions and it would be his best yardage output of those years.
In 2018 Ebron signed a 2-year $13million contract with the Andrew Luck lead Colts. It would be a fantastic season personally for Ebron who would produce his best career statistics and would only finish behind TY Hilton in terms of yardage totals, targets, and catches, although, Ebron would score more touchdowns than any other Colts player in 2018. This would be enough to see him rise to a top 4 tight end.
19 tight ends finished within the top 72 at their position and of those players, we can break down the following. Below we will see a breakdown of the numbers. Players are ranked in groups of 12. For example, to be a TE1 they must come between finishing overall between 1 and 12 in half PPR fantasy formats.
Did not play the following year- 36.8% (7 players)
7 of these players did not play the following season for various reasons, such as injury or retirement.
Moved up at least one tight end grouping- 15.8% (3 players)
3 players moved up at least one tight end grouping and gained fantasy value following on from joining a new team.
Moved down at least one tight end grouping- 36.8% (7 players)
7 players moved down at least one tight end grouping and lost fantasy value following on from joining a new team.
Held fantasy value (finished in the same grouping)- 10.5% (2 players)
2 players held their fantasy value by staying within their tight end grouping after joining a new team.
2019 Headline Free Agents
Jared Cook played for the Raiders in 2018 and would finish as the team's top option in terms of targets and yards and Cook would finish jointly with Jalen Richard in catches by the season’s end. As well as finishing top in many statistical categories Cook would end the year with 14 targets within the 20-yard line and as such would be a good touchdown option. The 2018 season would be a career highlight for Cook in terms of individual output with all the above personal statistics being the highest at this point in his career. Would this continue after changing teams?
The answer to that question would be almost. His targets would be slashed, but considering he was now competing with Michael Thomas -who would take 185 targets for himself- and Alvin Kamara who took away 97, finishing in third place in that category isn’t the worst output. The red-zone targets would also decrease but strangely enough, the touchdown rate would increase which would help sustain his TE1 level following his move to New Orleans with a contract worth $15million over 2 years.
James would play his 4th and final year at the Steelers in 2018 and would produce the most yardage output of his career, despite having almost half of the number of targets as he had in 2017. The Steelers would alternate their tight ends that season between James and Vance McDonald who would end up outperforming James.
James would sign a 4-year $22.6million contract with the Detroit Lions for the 2019 season and enter into a competition with Logan Thomas and newly drafted rookie TJ Hockenson. There would be many mouths to feed in the Lions offense with the likes of Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, JD McKissic, and the tight ends previously mentioned all getting targets from Matthew Stafford.
James’ usage would decrease again in 2020 and after the conclusion of the season, he would once again find himself as a free agent.
Fells played for his 3rd team in as many years when he signed with the Browns and would find himself limited in terms of his fantasy output. He would spend the season as the second choice behind David Njoku and only received 12 targets, although, 3 of those did end up as touchdowns.
Fells would move on once again, this time he ended up in Houston on a 1-year contract worth $1.5million. He would have a much more even split than the previous year, this time with Jordan Akins. Although Akins would have a larger number of targets, catches, and yards, Fells would end up with 7 touchdowns, which was the same number as the elite wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins.
Did not play the following year- 11.8% (2 players)
2 of these players did not play the following season for various reasons, such as injury or retirement.
Moved up at least one tight end grouping- 23.5% (4 players)
4 players moved up at least one tight end grouping and gained fantasy value following on from joining a new team.
Moved down at least one tight end grouping- 47.1% (8 players)
8 players moved down at least one tight end grouping and lost fantasy value following on from joining a new team.
Held fantasy value (finished in the same grouping)- 17.6% (3 players)
3 players held their fantasy value by staying within their tight end grouping after joining a new team.
2020 Headline Free Agents
Austin Hooper played for the Atlanta Falcons in 2019, ending a 4-year stay. He would produce TE1 numbers and finished 2nd in total targets and catches and 3rd in total yards as well as tying with Julio Jones in receiving touchdowns, He would have the vast majority of TE targets to himself with allowed him to finish high up the rankings.