Tell me if you’ve heard this story before. A young, athletic tight end is waiting in the wings behind a proven, yet older, veteran. The fantasy community concludes the young tight end will overtake the veteran and all will be right in the world. Once the season arrives, people lose their minds because the player they had such conviction about remains in the secondary role, while the old guy exceeds all expectations. I’m of course poking the Ladarius Green bear, but this same situation could play out this season in Denver, between Owen Daniels and Virgil Green.
Theoretically, the only thing standing in Virgil Green’s way was Julius Thomas. Much to the delight of Green owners, Thomas moved on to Jacksonville. While the beer was still cold at the Free Virgil Green party, new Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak signed his old ball and chain, Owen Daniels. Daniels has played every one of his nine seasons under Gary Kubiak. In Houston, he was Kubiak’s top tight end, racking up 385 receptions over a 100 game span. When Kubiak became the offensive coordinator in Baltimore last season, he brought Daniels with him, and after another gut wrenching Dennis Pitta injury in Week 3, Daniels took over the starting role. Now they are reunited in Denver and have a real chance to do something special with Peyton Manning at the helm.
According to Pro Football Reference, offenses led by Peyton Manning, over his 16 year career (sans 2011), have averaged 120.13 targets per regular season to tight ends. Since 2006, Gary Kubiak led teams have averaged 127 targets per regular season to tight ends. The Kubiak/Manning marriage is the perfect situation to focus on for finding your cheap starting tight end. Owen Daniels and Virgil Green will be two guys many are evaluating during training camp before putting their brand on one of them. Virgil Green hype has begun to stir but it hasn’t affected the two players’ Average Draft Position (ADP). According to the May ADP reports on MFL, Daniels (TE19) is still going ahead of Green (TE28). This is the way it should remain, and if anything, Daniels’ ADP has room to rise into the TE16/17 range, while still retaining some value.
The conundrum regarding Virgil Green is he has been in the NFL for four seasons, yet has about as many receptions (23) as games started (17). In 2014, Green’s exceptional blocking abilities kept him on the field, as he started nine games, but he didn’t have an impact in the receiving game at all, racking up a mere six receptions. Furthermore, the six targets that went his way last year is worrisome given Julius Thomas only started in 10 games.
Jacob Tamme, yes, that Jacob Tamme, received 28 targets in 2014 as he filled in for the injured Julius Thomas. Seems pretty damning to me. Of course, it could be because John Fox, Mike McCoy and Adam Gase didn’t see anything that set Virgil Green apart as a receiver, but regardless, Green had four years to flash something…anything—and he didn’t. One area Green was excellent at was run and screen blocking, receiving a +5.7 overall grade by Pro Football Focus. Of his 434 total snaps in 2014, he only ran 95 routes, a testament to his previously mentioned blocking abilities. Denver re-signed him this offseason and it’s likely not because they plan on using him as a receiver.
Owen Daniels is essentially the exact opposite of Virgil Green. He is a terrible blocker (-4.1 grade by PFF) but he graded out at as a stout +4.9 receiver. It isn’t difficult to connect the dots here. One of these tight ends is ideal for protecting your most valuable asset, Peyton Manning, along with paving holes in the run game. The other is a substantial liability in protection but is more than capable in the passing game. For full disclosure, there are some obvious knocks on Daniels, such as his age, inefficiency in 2014, and some injury history. Daniels had 14 red zone targets last year, converting four of them into touchdowns (28.5 percent). To put that into perspective, Julius Thomas had 16 red zone targets, turning nine of those into scores (56 percent).
A variable that should be included for context in this comparison is the Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A) between Joe Flacco and Peyton Manning. The difference in Manning and Flacco’s AY/A when targeting the tight end position is substantial.
When using The Projection Machine on RotoViz, Daniels projects to be the TE1 in Denver. If we go by past precedent and take into account the Kubiak/Dennison offense, Peyton Manning will have approximately 554 passing attempts with 20 percent of those going to TEs. When setting the target percentage for Owen Daniels at 15 percent of total targets, Catch Rate at 64 percent, Yards/Target to 7.5 and TD Rate at 8 percent, we get the following 2015 projection:
These numbers are similar to what Daniels put up in Baltimore last year and they are a decent average line, but I think his year-end stats will be slightly higher. For instance, if Daniels bumps up to 16 percent of the targets his numbers project to look like this:
Using MFL’s May ADP information, Owen Daniels is going at pick 13.06. That seems fair given Daniels’ age and past injuries, but I think his upside will be underrated all summer. Kubiak’s system uses the tight end all over the formation, making it complicated for unfamiliar players to pick up, so Owen Daniels already has a step up on any competition in Denver. Last season, Peyton Manning made it a priority to establish a connection with newly signed Emmanuel Sanders at his annual voluntary workouts at Duke. This past March, Manning showed equal determination to get Daniels involved.
If you’re looking to own a cheap piece of the Denver offense this season, Owen Daniels should be your target. His ceiling is a low end TE1 and his floor is at his current ADP. It’s not often a player catching passes from Peyton Manning goes under the radar for very long, but Daniels is a good candidate. Between his knowledge of the incoming system, receiving ability and Peyton Manning tossing the ball to him, Owen Daniels will be one of my top tight end targets in 2015.