Is Robust TE a Valid Draft Strategy? I Tried It In a Real Draft
Image via FootballSchedule/Flickr
Image via FootballSchedule/Flickr

Recently, Salvatore Stefanile wrote about his experience starting off a draft with Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. As it so happens, I had done the same thing just three days before. There was one significant difference between my draft and Sal’s– I happened to draft a third, potentially elite tight end. So I thought I would take this opportunity to expand on Sal’s piece and share my own experience.

The league is 10 teams, .5 PPR, and starts 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE, 1 Flex, 1 D, and 1 PK. I was drafting from the four spot. The league was a home league, so the draft didn’t adhere strictly to the ADP data you might find on more sharky sites like My Fantasy League. There were both bad reaches and good reaches. There were some players who fell surprisingly far.

Full disclosure: I had every intention to start off my draft with Graham and Gronkowski, and no intention of drafting a third TE. Somebody just fell to me that I couldn’t resist. I wanted to try the Graham/Gronk pair in this league specifically because it should be more viable in a 10 team league than a 12 team league, it should be more viable in a league where you only have to start 2 WRs, and it should also be more viable in a league with less experts and pros. The amount of a depth in a 10 team league also increases the value of top-tier players. Basically, if the strategy doesn’t work1 in this league, it’s probably not going to work in a more difficult setting.

In two of the most seminal pieces on all of RotoViz, Shawn Siegele argued that the flex wins championships and advocated for a Zero RB draft strategy. If fantasy drafts are a race to fill the flex, starting TE-TE wins that race in the second round. Shawn argues for filling the flex with a WR, but elite TEs score just as much as elite WRs.

One of the main knocks against going TE-TE is that TEs are more likely to become injured than WRs, which makes the TE-TE start somewhat fragile. One of the dominant fantasy strategies in regards to TEs is to wait until the end of the draft or simply stream them throughout this season. I think this is one reason the strategy is not as fragile as it seems. If my TEs get injured, I’m at a loss in the sense that I’m not getting contributions from my first two picks, but that’s also true of those who draft RBs early. The difference is that if Jamaal Charles gets injured, you’re not only not going to be able to replace him, you’re likely going to be scoring less at the position than the people who have healthy early round RBs. In the worst case scenario here, you’re more-or-less on even ground with the rest of the other teams at the TE position.

I feel like even those complaints might be addressable with the addition of a third TE. With the 117th pick of the draft, Ladarius Green was comfortably my highest rated player on the board. Green is a bad, bad man who wants to win you championships in 2014.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume that Green does breakout in 2014. I’ll have three elite TEs at my disposal. If one gets injured or is on bye, I’ll still have an elite TE in both my TE spot and my flex. If two are unavailable, I’ll still have an elite TE in my TE spot, and fortunately the flex is flexible. Only if all three get injured do I completely lose my advantage.

It’s also worth mentioning that most of my favorite breakout candidates at TE went undrafted in this draft, and tend to go undrafted in most leagues in general. So even if we assume that Green doesn’t break out, I may very well be able to find another TE that will. I also very well could have drafted somebody like Jordan Cameron, who is a little safer, instead.

Despite drafting two TEs early and then adding on Green, my team actually turned out really well and is quite balanced. Have a look:

Round Position Player
1 TE Jimmy Graham
2 TE Rob Gronkowski
3 WR Alshon Jeffery
4 WR Vincent Jackson
5 RB Reggie Bush
6 WR Torrey Smith
7 RB Joique Bell
8 RB Ray Rice
9 WR Mike Wallace
10 QB Tom Brady
11 WR Kendall Wright
12 TE Ladarius Green
13 WR Aaron Dobson
14 RB Terrance West
15 RB Bernard Pierce
16 RB Ronnie Hillman

At least in this league, drafting this way did not prevent the rest of my roster from being competitive.

I should also mention some specific effects of starting this way. When my second round pick came around Julio Jones, Jordy Nelson, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffery were all still available. I likely could have waited to draft Gronkowski in the third, but I really wanted to try this strategy out, so I had to make sure I got him. I gambled that Julio or Jordy would make it to me in the third, but they did not. I’m perfectly happy with Jeffery there though. It’s also worth mentioning that Julius Thomas did not make it back for my third pick, and I think he likely would have had I not drafted Gronkowski in the second.

It also seems possible that my strategy put other drafters on tilt. Real comments included, “This makes absolutely no sense,” “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” “None of my mocks were anything like this,” and “I have no idea what’s happening now.” It got considerable talk well past the second round. There may or may not be merit to the idea that it forces others to react to your draft, which should harm fellow drafters who rely heavily on predraft plans.

To see if this could work in 12 team leagues, let’s turn to the Snake Draft Planner:

Round Overall Conf. Based ADP Player POS Proj. Pts
1 6 6 Jimmy Graham TE 283.13
2 19 22 Rob Gronkowski TE 213.27
3 30 35 Andre Johnson WR 255.51
4 43 44 Michael Crabtree WR 241.61
5 54 56 Ray Rice RB 216.14
6 67 70 Danny Woodhead RB 185.1
7 78 90 Colin Kaepernick QB 311.79
8 91 91 Fred Jackson RB 169.1
9 102 106 Knowshon Moreno RB 163.12
10 115 120 Ladarius Green TE 142.04
11 126 138 Brian Hartline WR 174.86
12 139 152 Ryan Tannehill QB 252.44
13 150 155 Harry Douglas WR 158.78
14 163 200 Rod Streater WR 148.21

All I did to get that lineup was set the scoring to full PPR, pick the 6 spot in the draft, and preselect Graham, Gronkowski, and Green. I’m not crazy about that roster and it has a number of players I wouldn’t personally draft, but I do think it’s competitive. If you try the same thing but replace Green with Cameron, you just lose Michael Crabtree and Ryan Tannehill and get Doug Baldwin and Ben Roethlisberger as replacements. You could also specify that it not draft any RBs before round six, in accordance with true Zero RB strategy. Try it for yourself.

With some smart roster management2 and savvy drafting in later rounds, I see no reason why this strategy isn’t viable. I’ll be sure to take notes about how this affects my team throughout the season, and I’ll likely do a recap at the end of the year.

I’m sure there are criticisms of this strategy that I failed to address, so let me know in the comments, on the message boards, or on Twitter @TheHumanHuman.

  1. And I’m not going to judge whether it works based solely on whether or not I end up winning.  (back)
  2. That’s my way of saying that I don’t think this strategy is at all viable in best-ball formats.  (back)
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