Throughout this series, I’ll be your guide in taking you through the ins and outs of how each position is evolving in the fantasy football landscape. My goal is to give you actionable advice that you can use to become better fantasy players. This advice will shed a light on positional trends, and enable you to properly evaluate which players and positions you should be prioritizing. Whether you are using this information for your startup drafts, rookie drafts, or simply general strategy, I promise you will leave more informed than you came.
You can checkout the other editions here:
The TE position in fantasy football is one that is often overlooked, and under-discussed. One big reason for this is its top-heavy nature over the last several years. Beyond Travis Kelce, Darren Waller and George Kittle, the position group is frequently labeled a ‘wasteland,’ and rightfully so. Below is a chart that breaks down historical positional scarcity (in PPR formats) over the last 9 years. By using a series of different range values (the highest number in a given data set subtracted by the smallest) we can examine how much of a gap there’s been between and within each tier of the TE position throughout time.
As you can see, tiers were defined in groups of 6, rather than 12. The 12th best TE being referred to as a TE1 is an occurrence that needs to be put to rest in the fantasy industry. Two players that are separated by 132 points (avg. difference from 2018-2020) should not both be mentioned as TE1’s.
Historical Positional Scarcity
One thing that jumps out when looking at this data is that the average “1-6 Range” for 2018-2020 is more than double that of the same range for 2015-2017, and significantly more than that of 2012-2014. Throughout the last three years, hitting on one of the top 2-3 tight ends gave fantasy players tremendous leverage over their opponents. More specifically, drafting Travis Kelce gave teams an average of 112.3 more points at the TE position than the team with the number 6 tight end for that year.
So, you might be asking yourself at this point, “why do these numbers matter?”
First, it is important to clarify that the point of this exercise is not to simply point out how dominant guys like Kelce, Kittle and Waller currently are. Rather, by dissecting where the point scoring cliffs lay we can uncover how the elite TE tier is smaller than that of any other position. Furthermore, we can analyze this upper echelon and properly gather the common denominators that exist amidst them. Chief amongst these shared characteristics is ranking first or second on their team in target share.
Looking at the tight ends who finished top 3 (in PPR scoring) at their position in each of the last 9 seasons (going back to 2012), we find:
70% of these players ranked 1st on their team in target share.
89% of these players ranked 1st or 2nd on their team in target share.
7% of these players ranked 4th on their team in target share (Robert Tonyan in 2020 and Julius Thomas in 2013).
89% of these players finished with 100 or more targets.
96% of these players finished with 90 or more targets (the only one who finished with less was Robert Tonyan this last year who finished with an astonishingly low 59 targets).
Long story short, volume is king, and the ability to command targets over other skilled pass catchers on a TE’s respective team is a necessary precursor to elite fantasy production.
Now that we know the historical context, and the correlation between elite volume and elite fantasy production, let’s look at how each of the top 24 fantasy TE’s from 2020 fared in this regard:
Team Target Share Rank (2020)
While target share and volume as a whole are crucial to finding the tight ends that are the most likely to finish in the top 3 at their position, in order to have a comprehensive understanding of the position, further player performance analysis is necessary.
In the table below, you will find floor performance (measured by % of weekly finishes in the top 20), and ceiling performance (measured by % of weekly finishes in the top 10 and 5).
Also used: HOG Rate (defined by playerprofiler as: “a representation of targets per snap to capture the rate of passing game utilization on a per game basis,” and Fantasy Points Per Route Run, to measure how efficient each player is with their snaps.
Floor + Ceiling
Ability to Command Targets + Efficiency
Top Takeaways and 2021 Forecast:
While acquiring Waller, Kittle or Kelce in startup drafts can of course be beneficial for your dynasty teams, these players rarely come cheap when looking to trade for them. The optimal strategy for the TE position in dynasty is to obtain players that have the potential to jump into this elite tier in the next season or two. The two indicators that have proven predictive for honing in on these players before they breakout are: probability of receiving elite volume (elevation in target share), and exceptional talent/efficiency.
The TJ Hockenson vs. Noah Fant Debate –
Currently a hot topic in the dynasty world, TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant are neck and neck for many, with some even preferring Fant to Hockenson. Here’s why this shouldn’t even be a debate: First, these two young tight ends received very similar opportunity shares in 2020, both ranking second on their team in target share and possessing nearly identical HOG rates of 13.7% (Hock) and 13.5% (Fant). However, there was a stark contrast in what they did with their opportunity. Fant ranked outside the top 12 in floor and ceiling, while Hockenson ranked inside the top 5 in these same measures. On top of this, Hockenson’s opportunity is slated to increase in 2021, while Fant’s is all but certain to decrease. Cortland Sutton’s return will put a damper on Fant’s upside, as he’ll have to compete with Sutton, Jeudy, Tim Patrick, and the promising young TE, Albert O. Here’s more on why you should be prioritizing Hockenson when looking to buy a young TE:
TJ Hockenson – While it is difficult at this point in the season to project volume, as we don’t know for sure which teams will add pass catchers through the draft, one player that will assuredly receive more volume next year is TJ Hockenson. With both Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones leaving Detroit, regardless of who the Lions draft, there will be plenty of vacated targets for Hockenson to feast on next year. Although Goff will be playing in a different system, it’s worth noting that he targeted Everett and Higbee a combined 121 times last year. Being that Hockenson is significantly more talented than both, and has less target competition than the Rams duo did, expect 120+ targets for Hockenson in 2021.
Kyle Pitts – Despite the fact that we don’t yet know where this player is going to be playing his NFL football, Kyle Pitts is someone that should be aggressively acquired as much as possible this offseason. His current price of one mid-first round rookie pick is as cheap as he will be in the foreseeable future. The popular strategy of not drafting TE’s in rookie drafts and instead trading for them when their owners get impatient is not going to be applicable to Pitts. Regardless of his landing spot, Pitts’ undeniable talent will command high end volume sooner rather than later.
Ultimately, Pitts and Hockenson are the two young TE’s that have the best chance of breaking into the upper echelon of fantasy production at their position in the near future.
Because of the nature of the TE position, there will only be so many TE’s that break into this elite tier in the next year or two. The rest of these takeaways will focus on players that you should expect to take a step forward next year, while not necessarily attaining top 5 status. Even still, these players will see a rise in value over the course of the next season, and are 100% worth trading for right now:
Gerald Everett – Everett leaving Los Angeles in order to take his talents to the division rival Seahawks was perhaps the best case scenario for both Everett and his former teammate, Tyler Higbee. Despite ranking fifth on his own team in target share, Everett still finished as a top 24 tight end last year. Commanding 61 targets while competing for looks with Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Tyler Higbee and Josh Reynolds is nothing to scoff at. After signing a one year deal with 6 million guaranteed, Everett will have every opportunity to establish himself as the clear number three option in Seattle.
Additionally, he’ll enjoy a significant quarterback upgrade from Jared Goff to Russell Wilson. According to playerprofiler, Everett ranked 5th in true catch rate (total receptions divided by catchable targets), and 6th in target separation last year. Everett also possesses a 94th percentile burst score, and a 87th percentile catch radius- impressive physical tools. Everett is a great buy, as you can get him for pennies on the dollar, and he has surefire top 10 potential next year.
Tyler Higbee – After Higbee’s dominant stretch towards the end of the 2019 season, he became a popular breakout candidate for 2020 that never quite panned out. Because of this, Higbee is once again very affordable, as fantasy players have seemed to all but give up on his upside. Furthermore, Everett’s departure will open up 61 vacated targets which Higbee will be the primary beneficiary of. Higbee will also be catching passes from the best quarterback he’s had in his career. Matthew Stafford’s arrival is good news for all of the pass catchers in LA, notwithstanding Higbee. Higbee’s upside is capped, due to the fact that he will likely be the third option in the offense, however, like his former teammate, he also has easy top 10 potential next year. Especially in tight end premium leagues, scooping up Higbee is a sharp move that will pay dividends next year.
Irv Smith Jr. – Not nearly as sneaky (or cheap) as Higbee or Everett, Smith Jr. is still a good buy, as he is younger and possesses a higher long term ceiling than the other two players in this section. He will also benefit from his former teammate, Kyle Rudolph, moving on in free agency- which will open up around 40 targets and some extra snaps for Smith Jr. At only 22 years old, Smith Jr. ranked in the top 10 at his position in both measures of ceiling last season (% top 10 + % top 5). As Adam Thielen begins to see an age related decline, Smith Jr. will have the opportunity to establish himself as the long term number two option in the passing game. Next season, he will still be third in the pecking order, however, so buy him with the expectation of a top 12 finish next year, with the potential to rise even more in 2022 and beyond.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed reading this series as much as I enjoyed writing it.