Fantasy Football Tight Ends: A Fool’s Game
Last season, there were considered two elite-level tight end options in fantasy football. Both Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were coming off record-breaking years and expected to revolutionize how this position was drafted in leagues moving forward.
The perceived drop off in production from Gronkowski and Graham to second-tier options seemed to indicate a growing gap. This gap separated early-round options from late-round options with middling performers in between. In short, there were really not that many mid-round options when it came to standard leagues.
The same cannot be said for 2013.
Gronkowski is coming off a fourth surgery on the most famous right forearm history and may be facing a possible back surgery prior to the start training camp. The Patriots tight end missed five games due to injury and saw his total fantasy numbers drop off a great deal last year.
Here are Gronkowski’s game averages from 2011 and 2012
This might not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things. After all, 11.02 yards per game isn’t much. That being said, they added up to a 35-reception, 535-yard decrease from 2011 to 2012. As with most elite players facing injury issues (see Peyton Manning last summer), Gronkowski’s ability to produce as a top-tier fantasy player in 2013 will rely heavily on his health.
Luckily for fantasy owners, standard re-draft leagues don’t draft until some point in late-August. This cannot be said for dynasty and keeper leagues, many of which are set to hold drafts prior to August; some of which have already held drafts.
Drew Brees had a down season in 2012. He tied Tony Romo for the league lead in interceptions with 19 and was maddeningly inconsistent in comparison to previous seasons. While this lackluster effort didn’t necessarily impact Brees’ fantasy numbers, it did have a negative impact on Jimmy Graham’s fantasy output. The tight end put up nearly 330 less yards (20.6 per game) in 2012 than he did in 2011. That’s a significant drop off in production.
It wasn’t only these two elite fantasy tight ends who saw a decline in production this past season. Here is a look at some others:
|Player||2011 Splits (Rec, Yds, TD)||2012 Splits (Rec, Yds TD)|
If you are buying into continued regression from these previously six top-tier tight end options in 2013, I would take a step back and look at a couple things.
Vernon Davis’ number of targets went down a great deal when Colin Kaepernick entered the scene as San Francisco’s starting quarterback in October. Once Kaepernick started to gain a solid relationship with Michael Crabtree, the tight end saw his targets decrease even more. Davis averaged 2.7 targets per game over the final seven weeks compared to 4.7 targets per game in Alex Smith’s starts. Based solely Davis’ 70.7% catch rate from last season, that’s a decrease of 22 receptions over the course of an entire 16-game season.
With Crabtree out of the mix for the foreseeable future with a torn Achilles, there is reason for optimism that Davis can rebound to 2011 form or even become a more consistent fantasy option. Lets just say that Davis starts receiving the five targets per game, which would be on the low end of my projections, this translates to 96 targets over the course of a 16-game schedule. Davis caught 72.1 percent of the passes thrown in his direction over the last two seasons. This equates to 70 receptions for 1,015 yards and 12 touchdowns. Those are TE1 numbers right there. This doesn’t even take into account Kaepernick’s ability to push the ball down field and the need of Davis to step up in the red zone with Crabtree out for an extended period of time.
One of my major issues with the Tennessee Titans coaching staff over the past few seasons was their inability to use Jared Cook to the best of his ability. The young tight end showed a lot of promise, but seemed to be handcuffed by the offensive scheme in Nashville. He averaged 4.6 targets per game in 2011 compared to 4.9 targets this past season. To put that in perspective, Ben Watson averaged 4.6 targets per game in 2012 with the Cleveland Browns. Talk about under utilizing an impressive receiving option.
For someone that is considered a “check-down king,” Sam Bradford targeted his tight ends an average of just 4.3 times per game in 2012. Some of that could have had to do with lackluster receiving options at that position, but it seems that Bradford honed in too much on Danny Amendola (9.6 targets per game) than he needed to. With Amendola out of the mix and a young rookie Tavon Austin tasked with “replacing” him, you can expect Bradford to look to his new tight end more often in 2013.
Just a minimal increase in targets suggests that Cook could be a decent TE1 option in standard re-draft leagues. Cook caught 66 percent of the passes thrown in his direction over the past two seasons. An increase of just two targets per game, which isn’t out of the question, indicates that Cook could put up a stat line nearing 74 receptions, 1,020 yards and six touchdowns.
Davis and Cook are just two examples of guys who are likely going to see their production increase in 2013. They will also be available much later than top-tier tight end options in standard re-draft leagues.
ADP (Average Draft Position, via Fantasy Football Calculator)
|Player||Team||2013 ADP||Targets Per TD||Yards per Target|
|Jimmy Graham||New Orleans||24.1||14.6||7.5|
|Rob Gronkowski||New England||41.5||7||10.3|
|Aaron Hernandez||New England||53.7||16||6|
|Vernon Davis||San Francisco||74||11.2||9.8|
|Antonio Gates||San Diego||103.5||10.9||7.1|
|Jared Cook||St. Louis||130||17||7.7|
The moral of the story here is that you don’t need to reach for perceived “top-tier” tight end options relatively early in standard re-draft leagues. In fact, I would highly suggest that you wait to see how the board plays out and pick up “lesser” options later on in the draft. Is the difference between the production we are going to see from Jimmy Graham with an ADP of 24.1 that much greater than the production we will see from Jared Cook with an ADP of 130? That’s my point here.
More so than even the quarterback position, you can find value in mid-to-late rounds at tight end.
I utilized a few specific examples here, but the list goes on. Jermichael Finley, Tyler Eifert, Fred Davis, Dwayne Allen, Brandon Myers and Dustin Keller are other late-round options you should look at if you make the decision to avoid a tight end early.