The Tight End Arbitrage Opportunity Smacking You In the Face
Via Runway Ramblings
Via Runway Ramblings

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” -George Orwell

We at RotoViz firmly believe in getting something for nothing. By engaging in no-risk, high reward moves late in your draft or off the waiver wire, you maximize your chances of bringing home championships. Some arbitrage opportunities present themselves only to the discerning: For example, Alshon Jeffrey and Josh Gordon led many a RotoViz reader to championships. Othertimes, opportunities jump and scream for your attention: If you picked up Knowshon Moreno in one of the final rounds or off waivers based on this article, you would have had to try very very hard not to dominate your league. This arbitrage opportunity that I am going to share with you falls into the latter category. Warning: you may kick yourself for not writing this article first.

Bill O’Brien, Tight End Whisperer

The Houston Texans hired known tight end guru1 Bill O’Brien, the “Tight End Whisperer”, away from Penn State to be their head coach this year. You may recall O’Brien’s usage of tight ends as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots in 2011. That year, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski wreaked havoc on NFL defenses, accounting for 33% of the Patriots total yards from scrimmage2 and 44% of the Patriots total touchdowns. In terms of receiving, the two accounted for 42% of all receptions, 43% of receiving yards,  and 64% of the receiving touchdowns, notwithstanding a career year from Wes Welker where he totaled 1599 yards from scrimmage and 9 touchdowns on 122 grabs.

But lest you think that O’Brien’s usage of tight ends was a reflection on the unique talents3 of his tight ends in New England, this pattern has continued. In 2011, prior to Bill O’Brien’s arrival, the tight end position was barely utilized by the Penn State offense. In 2012 and 2013 under O’Brien, however, tight ends were a centerpiece of the offense. In 2012 four no-name4 tight ends accounted for 82 receptions, 1,090 yards and 10 touchdowns. To put that in market share perspective, those numbers amounted to 28% of all Penn State receptions, 31% of all reception yards,  and 42% of all receiving touchdowns. Last season, the Penn State tight ends’ market share stayed relatively consistent: 32% of all receptions, 29% of all receiving yards and 33% of all receiving touchdowns. In both years under O’Brien, Penn State’s  tight ends got fed, despite the presence of future superstar Allen Robinson.

Even if we5 weren’t impressed with the TEs on the Texans’ roster,6 it would be worth picking them up based on opportunity alone. I can’t find the link,7 but I recall someone recently did a study showing that tight ends are generally targeted around 20% of the time in the NFL, so O’Brien’s increased usage of the tight end position appears to be significant, to say the least.8 Let’s dig a little deeper into O’Brien’s usage of tight ends and the likely beneficiaries of O’Brien’s schematic largess.

O’Brien basically has two different tight end positions on his roster — F for the pass catchers, and Y for the blockers. As O’Brien explains: “The ‘F’ position is more of what we call a move guy. He’s little bit better pass receiver than he is a blocker, has good hands, is smart.” By contrast, “A `Y’ is a bigger guy — a good in-line blocker, runs intermediate routes, short to intermediate routes… His No. 1 job is to block, and then his second job is to run short, intermediate routes and be open. He’s got to have good hands; he’s got to be smart. He’ll be involved in protections. He’ll be involved in a lot of different things in the offense.”  Think of the positions as the Gronk (Y) and the Hernandez (F).

This year, Garrett Graham, who caught 49 passes for 545 yards and five touchdowns in 11 starts last season and was recently signed to a three year extension, is slated to be the Hernandez9:

“‘Coach O’Brien let me know he wanted me to stay here,” Graham said. “He wants to use me as more of a move tight end, an H-back. I’m excited about that. I did a lot of that in college (Wisconsin).”

Ryan Griffin is slated for the Gronk role. He impressed last year when when Graham missed the last three games of the season with a severe hamstring injury, making 14 catches for 177 yards in three starts.  Although he is likely ticketed for the Gronk blocking tight end role, make no mistake, he has a chance to make an impact on the offense as well.

Meanwhile, both Griffin and Graham will be backed up by 3rd round draftee C.J. Fiedorowicz, who the Intersect profiled here.  C.J. was, how shall we say, mildly enthused to be drafted by Bill O’Brien:

“I watched Penn State and they had a lot of three tight end sets,” Fiedorowicz said. “He was with New England before that as the offensive coordinator and they really utilized the tight end and I feel like I’m going to really show and prove to everybody that I’m a dual threat. I’m going to catch the ball and block on the edge and do everything he asks.”

Predictions, Predictions, Predictions

So… Bill O’Brien is going to heavily use his tight ends. But are they any good? I generally discount rookie tight ends, so let’s ignore Fiedorowicz for now, with the understanding that he should be monitored during the season if my thesis proves right and one of the other two tight ends goes down with an injury. Both Griffin and Graham fit the predictive profile for tight end success, and the Sim Score App approves of each as well. This is Graham’s unadjusted N+1 score from the app:

Standard Half PPR PPR
Low 5.1 7 8.6
Median 5.8 8.4 10.6
High 7.6 10 12.3

Even without knowing about the new tight end heavy offense,10 the app projects him to score a very solid 10.6 points per game, and enthusiastically compares him to 2009 Antonio Gates, 2005 Jeremy Shockey, 2003 and 2011 Tony Gonzalez and 2009 Kellen Winslow (though there are negative comps as well). If Graham had averaged 10.6 ppg over 16 games in 2013, he would have tied Martellus Bennett for TE10.

Meanwhile, as previously noted, rookie tight ends rarely produce, but if you look at the final three games of last season, which Griffin started, he posted the following lines:

  • 6/62, 12.2 PPR points
  • 5/66, 11.6 PPR points
  • 3/49, 7.9 PPR points

Not bad. In terms of athletic profile and other predictors, both Graham and Griffin acquit themselves nicely. Graham’s Phenom Index score is 1.456 , while Griffin’s is 1.37 (1 is an average score), and while Graham only sports a 0.879 weight adjusted agility score (again, 1 is an average score), Griffin’s is 1.291. Additionally, both Graham and Griffin occupy the same quadrant of the Intersect’s breakout age chart with dominator rankings well above 35%.

All Arbitrage Everything.

So if you made it this far — bravo. If you skipped down here for the punchline, here it is: Graham and Griffin are both free.

Since June 1, according to MFL 2014 ADP data, Garrett Graham’s ADP is at the end of the 17th round11, while Griffin’s is in the 25th round. That is insanity given the potential upside.

TL;DR: invest one of your late round picks in Garrett Graham and/or Ryan Griffin (or both, especially in best ball). Worst case scenario you cut them, but if they hit, you’ll be glad you grabbed them.

  1. As was noted last summer, “O’Brien is most famous for his use of tight ends, a position where versatility can exploit mismatches in today’s game like no other.”  (back)
  2. From scrimmage!!  (back)
  3. Insert your own Aaron Hernandez joke here.  (back)
  4. That is, prior to O’Brien’s arrival.  (back)
  5. Um… perhaps I’m using the royal “we” here. I was way ahead of everyone else in terms of ranking Garrett Graham as TE10 in our Tight End Redraft Ranks.  (back)
  6. Spoiler alert: the royal “we” are.  (back)
  7. But will update the post and give credit if anyone knows which article that was — it wasn’t a Rotoviz article.  (back)
  8. It also bears noting that the two likely candidates to be Houston’s starting quarterback also targeted the tight end position at above average rates: 21% of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s targets were to tight ends last year, as were 26% of Case Keenum’s, though to be fair, Keenum’s above average targeting percentage may account for some of Graham and Griffin’s stats last year, posing a chicken vs. egg issue.  (back)
  9. Minus the drive-by shootings. Sorry, couldn’t resist.  (back)
  10. To be fair, ousted coach Gary Kubiak also features the tight end position prominently, so maybe some of the upside is already baked in to the projections.  (back)
  11. When picked. He was only picked in 26 / 64 drafts as of the date of this writing, though his ADP has risen about two rounds in the past two weeks. Anecdotally, I’ve been scooping him up everywhere, and the only times I seemed to have missed out on him is when other drafters time out and are auto-drafted.  (back)
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