I’m concluding this mini-series on prototypical players with the tight end position. The reason I tend to analyze player types instead of a more individualized evaluation approach is due to the uncertainty caused by small sample sizes in football. When assessing things like injury-proneness or red zone efficiency, I think it helps us more to know that a tight end is 6’5”, 265 pounds than to know that he was 3-for-8 in rookie red zone touchdown conversions, for example.
Our evaluations of veterans can be more player-specific because we have reliable data, but trying to predict the week-to-week consistency of a player who has been in the league just two years is futile; you’re better off categorizing him into various buckets and then analyzing how similar players have performed in the past.
With that said, let’s take a look at specific traits to seek when targeting tight ends in fantasy football.
Chances to Score
Tight ends have a higher percentage of their fantasy points come from touchdowns than any other position. There are multiple reasons for that, but if you want potentially elite tight end production, you need to have tight ends with exposure to scoring opportunities.
Below, I charted team plays inside the opponent’s 10-yard line versus tight end fantasy finishes.
When you start to think about late-round tight end decisions, ask yourself if the offense in question can potentially score at a really high level. That might be the determining factor in your decision to choose Zach Ertz over Kyle Rudolph, for example.
The Late-Round Prototype: Zach Ertz
The Right Body Type
The biggest factor in predicting touchdowns is red zone opportunities. Even so, we want tight ends who are going to be able to make the most of their chances. For turning red zone targets into touchdowns, size is king.
Looking at tight end red zone efficiency since 2000, we see that tight ends who weigh 250 pounds or more have outperformed those below 250 pounds. It’s not like 250 pounds is some magical cutoff point—the buckets I chose are really just semi-arbitrary numbers that split the sample into equal parts—but clearly there’s a link between weight and red zone efficiency.
At a certain point, that “extra” weight probably doesn’t help much anymore because it limits functional movement, explosiveness, and so on. But in general, we want to favor heavier tight ends who can dominate in the red zone, where nearly all tight end touchdowns are created.
The Late-Round Prototype: Dwayne Allen
The Air Up There
Below, I charted the strength of the correlation between various tight end measurables and their production in the NFL, as defined by approximate value per season.
Height and weight aren’t strongly correlated with production, although it’s important to note that size is inversely correlated with speed, so we often don’t see a strong correlation with size and production since those heavier players tend to be a bit slower.
Nonetheless, the biggest predictor of success (in terms of NFL Combine measurables, anyway) for tight ends is the vertical jump. That’s actually the same as with wide receivers—two positions that need to leap to make grabs in traffic—while the vertical is almost meaningless for running backs.
Actually, the most important “measurable” for tight ends, like every positon, is draft round. The higher a tight end is drafted, the better he performs. Here’s a look at rookie tight end fantasy production versus draft round.
These numbers give mixed signals on a player like Eric Ebron. He was drafted in the top half of the first round, but he also doesn’t really have elite measurables, and his 32-inch vertical certainly leaves something to be desired.
The Late-Round Prototype: Austin Seferian-Jenkins
A Word of Caution
The top tight ends in fantasy drafts this year are all basically prototypes at the position—big, explosive, and red-zone efficient in quality offenses. But before you grab Jimmy Graham in the first round, take a look at the historic fantasy production of the top 12 tight ends.
The 2013 season is shown in black, with Graham’s year being a clear outlier. In three of the past five seasons, there has been a much flatter distribution of tight end fantasy points. A flat distribution indicates a lack of scarcity, which of course means a lack of value.
Does that mean Graham isn’t going to live up to his draft spot? Not necessarily, but it does mean you’re paying a premium on a player whose 2014 season probably won’t be as fruitful as his 2013 campaign. And you could argue that Graham’s cost has inflated that of Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron, too, such that they might be a little overvalued.
To be clear, I’m not necessarily anti-early-tight end, but you need to know that you’re not getting a discount on those players, so be sure they fit into the grand plan of what you want to do with your roster.