Draft Strategy: Do Mid-Round TE Values Exist?
When it comes to selecting tight ends, there appear to be three prevailing philosophies at this early stage of draft season. One camp needs an upper crust tight end like a fat kid craves cake. Another prefers to stand aside until the later rounds and pick a diamond from the remaining rough, or at least enough fugazis to get by. Then there are the value hunters. They are okay with grabbing a top tight end “if they’re there” in the early rounds but become dumpster divers when they miss out on the big boys.
Few have touted the value of delving into the middle tight end tier during the meat of the draft. On many levels this makes sense, and gaping holes can be poked in every member of the post-Jordan Cameron tier. Reasonable approximations of mid-round tight ends can be cobbled together through successful streaming techniques.
Plus, over the last two seasons there were 18 total tight ends selected from the fifth round through the ninth round* and just four of them finished the season ranked higher on the tight end scoring list than where they were drafted (Greg Olsen’s 2013 output equaled his TE8 ADP). That’s roughly only a quarter (27.8 percent) of mid-round tight ends matching or returning equity on their positional ADP.
Conversely, seven tight ends who were drafted in the 11th round or later finished in the top eight positionally. Nearly 45 percent of the top-eight scoring tight ends during the last two seasons were drafted outside of the top 12 at their position, with more than half of the aforementioned seven either 15th-rounders or undrafted entirely.
In addition to those wild swings in production, the opportunity cost of selecting a flawed Vernon Davis in the sixth round is crucial depth for the engines that power fantasy teams – running backs and wide receivers. Why pass up a Rashad Jennings, Jeremy Maclin, or Marques Colston, for a touchdown-dependent tight end who posted a full-season pace of 45 catches on 75 targets once a now-healthy Michael Crabtree returned in 2013? Why, indeed.
However a more actionable question is at what point does the opportunity cost no longer outweigh the benefit of grabbing one of those middle-tier tight ends? And if that point does exist, which of these marginalized tight ends deserve out attention?
Tagging Tainted TE
Considering there has been roughly a one-in-four success rate for middle-round tight ends over the last two years, let’s take on the Quixotian task of picking a pair of tight ends who not only possess the upside to return significant equity on their ADPs, but are being drafted in a range where the opportunity cost of selecting them is acceptable.
According to MyFantasyLeague ADP data from post-June 15th MFL10 leagues, there are eight tight ends being selected from the fifth round through the ninth round. Since Cameron barely made this cohort (pick 5.01, on average), is almost universally considered to be one of the top four at his position, and an 18-pick gap exists between him and Davis – he’ll be excluded from the group, and we will tack on an eighth tight end from the back end.
The choices are Davis (6th round), Jordan Reed (7th), Jason Witten (7th), Olsen (8th), Dennis Pitta (8th), Kyle Rudolph (8th), Zach Ertz (9th), and Ladarius Green (10th).
Right off the bat, Davis, Reed, and Witten are getting the ax. We touched on Davis above. Reed has a ton of talent, but a ton of concussion concerns. Considering the other options being drafted immediately around him (Stevan Ridley, Golden Tate, or even Nick Foles), his opportunity cost is high. A new offensive system with a sketchy history of tight end production adds more doubt. Witten has a similarly elevated opportunity cost, but offers a higher floor and lower ceiling. A dollar-for-dollar return on investment is likely his best possible outcome.
Olsen and Pitta are going off the board with back-to-back picks, on average. Their opportunity cost is not nearly as prohibitive. Running backs being selected within a couple picks before, and a full round after, include Danny Woodhead, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Darren Sproles. Receivers in that same range are DeAndre Hopkins, Reggie Wayne, Brandin Cooks, Mike Evans, Cecil Shorts, Dwayne Bowe, and Tavon Austin. There are interesting names there but all are eminently replaceable. The most attractive players in their range include quarterbacks Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan.
Rudolph and Ertz are being taken at the tail end of that range and are actually surrounded by more attractive players. While this will likely change by the time draft season is in full swing, for now their opportunity cost is arguably greater than the previous pair of tight ends. Bernard Pierce, Jeremy Hill, and Fred Jackson are in both of their orbits, and Ertz’s extends to Christine Michael, and Terrence West. Knowshon Moreno is in there too, but fat chance you’re interested in him. Receivers being picked around Rudolph and Ertz include Riley Cooper, Marvin Jones, Justin Hunter, and Kenny Stills.
Finally, Ladarius Green’s opportunity cost involves a pair of other streamer level tight ends, a few quarterbacks, and the first team defense off the board. Unless you consider the calcifying Hakeem Nicks, Anquan Boldin, and Greg Jennings, or the neophytic Kelvin Benjamin, and Jordan Matthews as serious opportunities missed, Green’s cost is not prohibitive.
And the two choices are…
Dennis Pitta (ADP – 86; TE9; early 8th round)
Last preseason’s tight end Sleeper of the Year before requiring surgery to repair a blown out hip, Pitta is again fully healthy. Actually he’s surrounded by more favorable circumstances than when we were salivating over him a year ago. In truth, not many are pounding the Pitta drum this year and that’s a good thing for fantasy owners. He can be selected in that eighth round sweet spot where few other attractive assets are coming off the board.
Pitta ranked ahead of Jimmy Graham in points per opportunity (PPO) over the second half of 2012, during which time he was a top-four tight end in fantasy. His connection with quarterback Joe Flacco seemed to improve as the season went along, culminating in a crucial role during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. Among his peers he ranked third in drop rate (4.7 percent), sixth in touchdowns (7), 10th in targets (90), and was third in yards per route run from the slot, where he will line up frequently in new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s two-tight-end-heavy scheme. And, really, he was just getting warmed up.
Speaking of Kubiak, he has been something of a tight end whisperer throughout his coaching career, and Pitta will be the latest beneficiary. Early word is Kubiak has him lining up all over the offensive formation, following through on comments made during his introductory press conference in January when he said Pitta will “be a big part of the offense.” The organization then signed the tight end to a healthy five-year contract in February after making it clear that bringing him back was their top priority.
When Flacco’s performance tanked last season (73.1 QBR), much was made over the missing Anquan Boldin. However, with a quarterback rating of 87.7 in 2012, and Boldin posting a wide receiver rating of 88.5, it appears that narrative was a bit overblown. Flacco had a comparable 7.17 average yards per attempt when targeting Pitta, a tight end, as he did when throwing it Boldin’s way (7.73). His touchdown-to-interception ratio was also better when he went to Pitta (7:3) instead of Boldin (4:3). While Flacco missed both weapons in the short-to-intermediate part of the field in 2013, he arguably missed Pitta more. Don’t be surprised when Flacco’s performance rebounds in 2014 because he again has his tight end’s services.
This adds up to a player who will appreciably exceed his current ADP, and at a very reasonable opportunity cost. It makes a heck of a lot more sense than using that pick on a WR4, and seeing how much Reggie Wayne has left in the tank.
Ladarius Green (ADP – 112; TE12; early 10th round)
Generally speaking, getting behind a frothy public and ignoring well-reasoned points raised by intelligent analysts is a quick path to the bottom of the standings. However, in this case the hypesters have it right. Yes, “Antonio Gates is not dead yet!” and Green may trail him in snaps and targets early on. But this is a bet on talent over opportunity with an eye on Green’s final hurdle to fantasy stardom being more of a mirage than an unmovable obstacle.
The biggest argument against Green’s opportunity is Mike McCoy wants his Chargers to run early and often, and then run some more. That was the foundation of the tightrope-walking, ball-control strategy that they managed to pull off in 2013. Unfortunately for the Bolts, lightning won’t strike twice in the same place.
San Diego has two games each with the Broncos (PFF’s 2nd best run-stopping team in 2013), Chiefs (3rd best), and Raiders – who have remade their front seven into a strength. They face the Jets, who boasted the best run-stopping grade in the NFL last year, and nobody is running on them. The Patriots are again healthy on defense, and when that’s been the case they don’t give it up on the ground. Buffalo’s front seven is formidable (6th best run-defense grade). The Ravens (8th best) and Jaguars, who are ascending on defense, are tough assignments as well.
And of course, they get four games against the Goliath defenses of the NFC West.
San Diego is going to have to throw, and more often than they did late in 2013. That stretch run is when they reinvented themselves into a ground-and-pound attack, handing off on half of their snaps. During the first eight games, they barely ran over 40 percent of the time and frequently deployed an up-tempo attack behind a rejuvenated Philip Rivers.
There are indications that Rivers will again take the reigns of the no-huddle, and that’s one of the keys to unlocking Green. He will be on the field more often than last year, and the anticipated spike in versatile two-tight end sets ensures it. Yes, he is a strong blocker and oftentimes that kept him on the line instead of running pass routes. But it is worth noting that the Chargers brought in specialist David Johnson from Pittsburgh to help fill the blocking tight end role.
San Diego’s other tight end, who many have pointed out is still alive and kicking, is not nearly the game breaking weapon he once was. At this point Gates runs like he’s on a freshly frozen pond, and his effectiveness plunged along with his opportunities in the middle of 2013.
|First 10 games||77||56||664||11.9||5.6||3|
|Last 8 games||37||24||223||9.3||3.7||1|
It’s interesting that around the time Gates fell off, Green took off. From Week 11 through the end of the season, it was clear who the more dangerous playmaker was, no matter who was getting more opportunities. Gates ran over twice as many pass routes (243 vs. 112), had two times the targets (38 vs. 19), and two-and-a-half as many catches (25 vs. 10), but Green still scored more standard fantasy points (40.8 vs. 38.0). Plus, when the playoffs rolled around it was Green who had more targets, catches, yards, and he was the only one to score.
Looking ahead, it is impossible to project diminutive running back Danny Woodhead again leading the team in red zone targets (23), and Green will see some of the runoff. Even if most of Eddie Royal’s 14 misplaced red zone looks—half of which came before Week 3—go to a returning Malcolm Floyd, that’s another handful up for grabs. Vincent Brown, who had eight red zone targets of his own, will probably see more time on the bench with Royal. Finally, with 21 and 15 red zone targets, respectively, Keenan Allen and Gates already had full plates in that department and an appreciable increase is unlikely. Green will see many more than the four that he received in 2013.
The Chargers, who boast a still-developing defensive unit, will find the sledding tougher for their favored run-heavy strategy. They are in need of dynamic weapons after an offseason light on offensive additions. They have their Gates 2.0 primed to receive the baton from the premiere physical freak tight end of the last decade. A 10th round opportunity cost is a bargain for a player who will be a difference maker sooner rather than later, and is capable of propelling fantasy teams to Titletown.
*- 2012 and 2013 ADP data courtesy of MyFantasyLeague, post-July 1st non-mock redraft leagues
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman