Elite tight ends have always been desirable in fantasy football, but now they’re a full-blown craze. If fantasy players aren’t trying to draft the next Jimmy Graham, they’re trying to get their hands on Graham himself. So how can we find these guys ahead of time? It’s generally accepted that elite fantasy TEs are either freaks of nature or play with elite quarterbacks. The elite QB thing isn’t that helpful though, as QBs often have elite seasons without producing an elite TE option. We’re better off looking for freaks.
Fortunately, RotoViz happens to have a Freak Score Calculator. By inputting a weight, height, and 40 time, it gives you a single number that tells you just how freaky a player is. Now, the app was designed with wide receivers in mind. It might be best to consider this a thought exercise since I’m using it to examine TEs. Still, it’s an accurate representation of how athletic a player is. I’m sure Graham himself would agree with me that he should be evaluated in the same way as a WR. Eric Ebron doesn’t even want to be called a TE, so I apologize to him in advance.
I started by creating a list of elite TEs and running them through the app, so that I would have a frame of reference. For the purposes of this article, I used officially sourced combine numbers whenever possible. If those didn’t exist or I couldn’t find them, I would then move on to pro day numbers. I marked any measurements I was dubious about with an asterisk.
|Rob Gronkowski||78||264||4.68||83||Julio Jones- 84, Andre Johnson- 82|
|Jimmy Graham||78||260||4.56||93||Calvin Johnson- 100, Stephen Hill- 90|
|Aaron Hernandez||74||245||4.64||68||Alshon Jeffery- 67|
|Vernon Davis||75||254||4.38||102||Calvin Johnson- 100|
|Jordan Cameron||77||254||4.59||84||Julio Jones- 84|
|Julius Thomas||77||246||4.68||70||Justin Hunter- 70|
|Jason Witten||78||264||4.65*||86||Vincent Jackson- 89, Julio Jones- 84|
|Antonio Gates||76||255||4.6*||82||Andre Johnson- 82|
|Tony Gonzalez||77||247||4.54*||85||Darrius Heyward-Bey- 85|
- I included a column including players with comparable Freak Scores for context in this table only.
- By far the least athletic by this measure are Aaron Hernandez and Julius Thomas. The two have played with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, respectively, in offenses that featured more talented players than them. Hernandez supposedly ran a 4.58 forty at his pro day as well, which would raise his score to a 73.
- The Freak Score Calculator was designed so that Calvin Johnson would score 100. Vernon Davis beats that with a score of 102. I wrote about how Davis is likely undervalued here.
- Jordan Cameron is as athletic as Julio Jones, while being quite a bit bigger. It seems unlikely that his 2013 season was a one-hit wonder.
- It’s harder to find official numbers for older players. Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez’s 40 times make sense to me, given their careers. I also saw Antonio Gates listed with a 40 forty time of 4.50 seconds. That would raise his score all the way to 92. Take their scores as seriously as you want.
Now that we’ve got some benchmarks, we can see how some younger guys fare. Primarily, we’re interested in 2014 rookies and other young guys who could potentially break out.
- Eric Ebron’s score may be something of a red flag. Before the draft, Ebron was regularly compared to Davis. Athletically, they belong on completely different planets. That’s not a realistic expectation for Ebron. The only players he outscores in the elite cohort are the aforementioned Hernandez and Thomas. I’m not saying Ebron won’t become an elite TE. His score is borderline and he was drafted incredibly early for a TE. But does it make sense to draft Ebron in the top six of a fantasy draft if he becomes anything else? I would say not. I think you’re better off acquiring cheaper TEs who may have a lower floor but a potentially higher ceiling.
- I was one of only four rankers to rank Austin Seferian-Jenkins above Ebron in our 2014 Composite Rookie Rankings. I did so because I believe ASJ has more upside, and this experiment backs that up. It’s also backed up when you look at age and dominator rating data. If you want to spend an early pick on a TE in hopes to get an elite guy, ASJ is who you should draft. It bears mentioning that his reported 40 time comes from a private workout, but nobody has really disputed it.
- Jace Amaro’s score is merely good. It’s pretty close to Ebron’s, so I think you could make a case for him as an arbitrage play.
- Colt Lyerla’s score is better than teammate Richard Rodgers’, but it’s not as impressive as his reputation suggests. He did excel in other drills, so it’s possible this measure isn’t quite capturing his overall athleticism. Still, there’s a good chance he never even has a pro career. I’ll be staying away.
- A.C. Leonard has the second-highest Freak Score of the group. Minnesota signed him as an undrafted free agent. Normally, UDFAs are nothing to get excited about. But a developmental TE strikes me as the kind of player that could realistically go from being a UDFA to a major difference-maker. He also gets to work with Norv Turner, who has a reputation for his work with TEs. I’ll leave it to you to determine how deserved that reputation is.
- The rest are all pretty uninspiring.
Other Notable TEs
- Tyler Eifert, Zach Ertz, Gavin Escobar, and Levine Toilolo are all getting some sophomore buzz. They may become contributors, but the Freak Score doesn’t like any of them to become elite options.
- Vance McDonald could be an interesting option if Davis ever leaves San Francisco.
- Travis Kelce is a popular sleeper, and he definitely has some athleticism to back that up. There’s not much competition in Kansas City for targets either. Kelce is a sophomore, but I think it may make more sense to view him as a rookie. I’m a little wary because rookie TEs don’t typically produce much. He’s a stronger target in dynasty than in redraft, but I would try to own shares in both formats.
- Jordan Reed’s score is really worrying to me. Obviously, we already know that he can produce. But I can’t help but wonder if people are being overly optimistic based off of a small sample size. A positive way to spin it is that he’s frequently compared to Hernandez, and Hernandez was the least athletic of the elite group. But Hernandez was still substantially more athletic than Reed. I wrote about why I’m unlikely to invest in Reed because of other factors, but this might seal the deal for me.
- I already told you that Ladarius Green is a bad man.
- Adrien Robinson is in a boom-or-bust year. Keep an eye on him during the preseason. By 2015 he’ll either be an elite TE or largely irrelevant.
- Rob Housler could be interesting if he ever gets out of Arizona.
- Look at Luke Willson. Would you believe me if I told you that he also reportedly ran a 4.46 second forty yard dash? That would raise his Freak Score to 98. More to come on him in a separate article.
- I’ve been critical of Coby Fleener in the past, on more than one occasion. While I haven’t been very impressed by him at the NFL level, he laps Dwayne Allen in raw athleticism. Fleener supposedly ran a 4.45 40 at his pro day, which would raise his score to a 97. I think most people have decided that he’s just a good not great player, but he does have elite potential. He’s a good post-hype target in both redraft and dynasty.
Again, I suggest you just think of this as a thought exercise. But if you believe the easiest way to acquire an elite TE is to target players with elite athleticism, this should give you some ideas of who to target and who to avoid.