News & Analysis

The season that was: Fantasy TE lessons from 2017

By Dan Clasgens
Jan 16, 2018

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 22: Evan Engram #88 of the New York Giants runs 5-yards to score a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks during the second quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on October 22, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Each fantasy football season presents new layers of data and morsels of info that needs to be reviewed and analyzed to help shape our strategies moving forward.

In 2017, we saw fantasy production go down across the board. NFL teams combined for 1,121 offensive touchdowns. That’s down from 1,230 in 2016 and the lowest mark since 2007 when 1,106 touchdowns were scored.

We’ve already taken a look at some lessons learned at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver as we look back on the 2017 fantasy football season. Let’s now turn our attention to the tight end position and discuss some key takeaways.

Gronk is not worth a second-round pick

Rob Gronkowski is annually atop the fantasy rankings at tight end and rightfully so, but he comes at a steep price. His final 2017 ADP landed at 2.06 in PPR leagues and slightly higher in non-PPR formats.

Gronkowski finished as PFF’s highest-graded tight end in 2017. He led all tight ends that played in 50 percent or more of their team’s snaps with 0.36 fantasy points per opportunity, tied for second with an 11.09-yard average depth of target, and finished the year by catching 69 of his 100 targets with 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns.

Given the production that the others offer in the top 25 at other positions it’s hard to justify going with fantasy’s top tight end in the early rounds. Gronk’s physical style of play and big frame has led him to once again be susceptible to injuries. The Patriot failed to play in 16 games for the sixth straight season, missing three contests. He’s now missed 22 outings over the past five years.

Injury-prone players often get hurt

Gronkowski has found a way to offer consistent production despite his injuries. Other tight ends haven’t been as fortunate. Jordan Reed and Tyler Eifert were both drafted before round six ended this past summer despite concerns with their durability.

Reed finished as TE43 after playing in just six games while dealing with myriad injuries. He pulled in 27 of 33 targets for 211 yards and three touchdowns. Aside from his 2015 breakout, Reed has fizzled in four of five seasons, missing 28 games in that span. He scored 11 times in 2015, but has just 11 total touchdowns throughout the rest of his career.

Eifert played in just two games for the Bengals in 2017 and had just four catches for 46 yards. He has 18 scores over his last 22 games, but has missed 40 of his team’s last 64 contests. Set for a free agency, Eifert will likely have to sign a one-year, incentive-based deal.

Injuries hit hard at tight end this year. Only one of the top six fantasy finishers at the position managed to play 16 games. You should minimize the risk though by avoiding players who are frequently sidelined.

Touchdowns matter more

Touchdowns loom large in fantasy, especially at tight end. This was best demonstrated when looking at the season turned in by Jimmy Graham for the Seahawks in 2017.

Graham finished as TE4 in standard leagues and TE7 in PPR, mostly due to the fact he scored 10 touchdowns. The veteran finished seventh in targets (92), was tied for ninth in receptions (57) and 17th in receiving yards (520).

With so few tight ends having huge seasons and consistent volume, the ones that score usually rise to the top. There were only two tight ends to score six or more touchdowns and not finish inside the top 10 at the position. Red-zone data usually provides indicators for potential success and owners need to not ignore them.

Don’t always fade the rookies

Fantasy owners in redraft leagues have been ignoring first-year tight ends for years. That strategy backfired in 2017 though, as Evan Engram finished as a top-five tight end.

It was a case of talent lining up with opportunity for the young Giants playmaker. After the team was decimated by injuries at wide receiver, Engram became a focal point for Eli Manning. His 108 targets, 64 receptions and 722 receiving yards were the most by a rookie tight end during the PFF era.

This comes one year after Hunter Henry made a fantasy splash by finishing tied for first among all tight ends with eight touchdowns. Since 1980, only Rob Gronkowksi has had more TD catches at the position as a rookie. After the past couple seasons, it’s time to reassess how we look at young tight ends.

Recent rookie tight end seasons of note
Year Player Team G Tgt Rec Yds TD Y/R Catch%
2017 Evan Engram NYG 15 108 64 722 6 11.3 59.26%
2016 Hunter Henry SD 15 53 36 478 8 13.3 67.90%
2010 Rob Gronkowski NE 16 59 42 546 10 13 71.20%
2010 Jimmy Graham NO 15 44 31 356 5 11.5 70.50%
2003 Antonio Gates SD 15 42 24 389 2 16.2 57.10%
2003 Jason Witten DAL 15 54 35 347 1 9.9 64.80%

Milestones and more

  • For the second straight year, Travis Kelce finished as the top fantasy producer at tight end, compiling 235.5 PRR points, 14.5 points more than his league-leading mark in 2016. Those two seasons marked the lowest point total by league leader since Antonio Gates was fantasy’s top tight end with 217.4 points in 2006.

  • Antonio Gates reached a major milestone in Week 2 when he hauled in his 112th career touchdown pass, breaking a tie with Tony Gonzalez for the most career scoring passes for a tight end. The veteran had his fewest receptions this season since catching 24 as a rookie in 2003 as he settled into a backup role and may finally be ready to retire this offseason.
  • Graham led all tight ends with 26 red-zone targets, including a league-high 16 targets inside the 10-yard line. All of his TD catches came inside the red zone with eight of those coming from 10 yards out or closer. The only other tight ends with 10 or more targets inside the “green-zone” this season were Kyle Rudolph (11), Gronkowski (10), and Gates (10). A sneaky name to keep an eye in 2018 is George Kittle of the 49ers. As a rookie he saw 16 red-zone targets and pulled four of the seven targets he had inside the 10-yard line.
  • Gronkowski is always among the leaders in average depth of target at tight end and he was so again this season with an 11.9-yard aDOT. The only other qualified players to post an aDOT of 11.0 yards or higher in 2017 were O.J. Howard (12.3), Vernon Davis (11.9), David Njoku (11.6) and Nick O’Leary (11.5).

How does this year stack up?

Here’s a look at how this year’s top fantasy producers at TE stack up recent years’ leaders:

Moving forward at tight end

Production has been way down the past few seasons at tight end and there have been a number of variables that have played into that, including an increase in injuries to some of the top performers at the position and the drop in overall scoring around the league.

The dropoff in talent is drastic after the top tier of tight ends, and the difference between the secondary players is minimal. That makes for some tough lineup decisions for those without a top-tier option. There’s something to be said about just having a guy you can plug in week in and week out. The problem is that there are so few of them to be had.

There is a nice crop of young talent at the position though, so there is some reason of optimism. Owners shouldn’t go after a tight end in the first few rounds, but don’t wait around and be the last one to the tight end party on draft day either.

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