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How Receiver Injuries Turn Tight Ends from Duds to Studs

In Part I, I examined how injuries to teammates can create league-leading target volume for the elite wide receivers. In this article, I’ll explore how the same dynamic affects the tight end position, and how we can identify breakout tight ends.

Last year we saw something of an explosion in tight end scoring. Conventional wisdom in recent years has been to go big with Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham or punt the position until the late rounds of the draft. But in 2015 we saw six TEs average over 14 points per game in PPR scoring, which means that in 12-team leagues half the teams were falling substantially behind. Gronk, Jordan Reed, and Delanie Walker formed an elite tier, followed closely by Tyler Eifert, Gary Barnidge, and Greg Olsen.

INJURY OPPORTUNITY SCORES, PART II

As I demonstrated in Part I, by multiplying a player’s target market share by his games missed, we can create a proxy for the vacated targets, or opportunity, provided to the other players on the team. By aggregating that opportunity for the top four receiving targets on each team, we can see which teams were most affected by injury. And we can assign an Injury Opportunity Score to each individual player.

Charting the Injury Opportunity Scores for TEs against target market share revealed something interesting.The correlation between teammate injuries and targets was even stronger for TEs than for WR1s. Charting all TEs that played at least 14 games and were a top four target on their team, we see a positive trendline with R-squared equal to 0.3832, compared to 0.2533 in our chart for WR1s.

te injury opp

One shortcoming of the IOS metric is that it doesn’t account for players that missed the entire season, and thus accrued zero target market share. This is significant because the tight end with the highest target market share last year was Greg Olsen, who set a career high with 25 percent of Carolina’s targets. Kelvin Benjamin, of course, missed the whole season with a torn ACL, and so Olsen’s seemingly low IOS of 0.62 skews the data. If we remove him from our sample, our R-squared increases to 0.4498. In any case, it’s clear that teammate injuries are very important for TE target market share, especially when the TE becomes the de facto primary receiving option.

THE TIGHT END REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED

From our seemingly elite tier of six TEs, we realize that Gronk lost Julian Edelman, Reed lost DeSean Jackson, Walker lost Kendall Wright, Olsen lost Kelvin Benjamin, and Barnidge lost Josh Gordon and Andrew Hawkins. Tyler Eifert was the only one who didn’t lose his primary WR, and in fact got injured himself.

Despite having the highest IOS at 1.86, Gronk actually commanded his lowest target market share since 2012. So while Patriots injuries might have boosted him somewhat in a down year, it’s reasonable to expect that his target dominating ways will continue. I think we should expect some regression for the others, however. In other words, I don’t believe the TE revolution has quite arrived.

THE LOSERS

Delanie Walker (1.16 IOS) had a massive 24 percent target market share, while previous target hog Kendall Wright missed six games, and Harry Douglas and Dorial Green-Beckham missed two games apiece. This was a career high for Walker at age 31. Walker may remain the Titans primary target, but the underappreciated Rishard Matthews is now in town as well as the rookie phenom Tajae Sharpe. Injury regression alone should dictate a decline from Walker’s enormous target volume.

Gary Barnidge (1.08 IOS) saw Josh Gordon miss the whole season, and Andrew Hawkins and Brian Hartline combined for 12 missed games. Now 31 years old, with Gordon returning as well as the addition of Corey Coleman, Barnidge is primed to disappoint as the seventh tight end taken in drafts. His 21 percent target market share from 2015 is basically only sustainable if he remains the Brown’s primary receiving weapon.

The minor losers here are Olsen, Reed, and Jason Witten. All three lost the primary WR on their team, but have solid target splits with or without them. Olsen has seen over 20 percent of Carolina’s targets for four straight years and will remain a primary target for Cam Newton, regardless of Benjamin’s return. He is a minor loser because his targets will probably decline, but his price has not increased in drafts from last year despite his strong season.

Witten saw his target market share tick back up to 20 percent, after having slipped below 20 the previous two years. Perhaps he ticks down again with a healthy Bryant, but his role in the offense has been incredibly stable. Even in 2015, he posted nearly identical target splits with or without Bryant, and with or without Tony Romo. Witten may even be a minor winner in the sense that his ADP continues to fall with age, however it’s unlikely to expect more favorable injury conditions than last year.

Jordan Reed demands a mention because he has seen his ADP rise dramatically from last season. While his IOS of 0.63 appears to put him above the trendline for expected target market share, his score underrepresents the loss of DeSean Jackson. Jackson missed enough games that his target market share was only nine percent, yielding a lower than expected IOS for Reed. As well, Jackson missed important early games, while Kirk Cousins built a connection with Reed, Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder. Reed had solid splits with or without Jackson, but some targets could tilt back to Jackson after a full offseason of work with Cousins. Given his high price tag, it’s worth noting that he does likely have room to regress from an injury opportunity perspective.

THE WINNERS

Even though Zach Ertz didn’t score many touchdowns, and padded his stats somewhat in garbage time at the end of the year, he still managed an excellent 18 percent target market share with a 0.09 IOS. While his competition wasn’t that impressive, it’s hardly been upgraded over the offseason. Any injury regression for Ertz could catapult him to a 20+ percent target market share.

Eric Ebron only managed a target market share of 11 percent, but he did it as a second-year tight end, in only 14 games, with Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, and Theo Riddick all playing 16 games. His IOS of 0.00 has nowhere to go but up. Clive Walford and Lance Kendricks also fall into this category of low target market share, but zero injury opportunity.

It’s a little bit counter-intuitive to call a currently injured player a winner from an injury regression perspective. Nevertheless, Tyler Eifert had a target market share of 15 percent, while his primary competition for targets (A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Gio Bernard) didn’t miss a game. Although there is cause for concern with Eifert this year, in leagues where you can afford to stash him, keep his 0.00 IOS in mind as he slips down draft boards.

Travis Kelce had a 1.17 IOS leading to a 22 percent target market share, behind only Greg Olsen and Delanie Walker. Target-hogging Jeremy Maclin missed a game, Albert Wilson missed two, and of course Jamaal Charles missed 11 games. This would seem to paint Kelce as a loser in this analysis. However, among the elite tier of TEs, Kelce is the only one to see his ADP drop a full round from last year. Jordan Reed, Delanie Walker, and Gary Barnidge have all seen their prices skyrocket, while Olsen and Gronkowski remain right around where they were drafted in 2015. With the exception of Gronkowski, that whole elite tier should see their target market share regress. At 22 percent, Kelce’s market share has room to dip, while remaining one of the most targeted TEs in the league. Although the volume of the Chiefs offense has limited his fantasy value, in the event that volume rises, Kelce would have immense upside at a reduced cost.

THE DATA

Below you can explore the IOS for all TEs that were top four receiving options. While we probably can’t guess who the next Gary Barnidge is, we can look for players that have a chance to be the primary receiver on their team if an injury or two opens the door. San Francisco, New York (Giants), and L.A. look like teams with thin WR corps that could launch a breakout tight end in the right circumstances.

PLAYERTEAMRec. OptionTarget MSGMSMissed GMSIOSselfIOS
Greg OlsenCAR10.251600.000.62
Delanie WalkerTEN10.241510.241.16
Gary BarnidgeCLE10.211600.001.08
Jordan ReedWAS10.211420.420.63
Jason WittenDAL10.201600.000.98
Rob GronkowskiNEP10.191510.191.86
Travis KelceKC20.221600.001.17
Zach ErtzPHI20.181510.180.09
Charles ClayBUF20.171330.511.36
Ben WatsonNO20.171600.000.46
Jimmy GrahamSEA20.161150.800.00
Jared CookSTL20.161600.000.18
Martellus BennettCHI20.151150.752.29
Antonio GatesSD20.131150.651.74
Jordan CameronMIA20.121600.000.61
Kyle RudolphMIN30.161600.000.84
Tyler EifertCIN30.151330.450.00
Coby FleenerIND30.141510.140.00
Heath MillerPIT30.141510.140.80
Jacob TammeATL30.131510.130.27
Owen DanielsDEN30.131600.000.29
Julius ThomasJAX30.131240.520.50
Richard RodgersGB40.151600.000.51
Eric EbronDET40.111420.220.00
Will TyeNYG40.101330.300.26
Vance McDonaldSF40.091420.180.53
Lance KendricksSTL40.091420.180.00
Clive WalfordOAK40.081510.080.00
Crockett GillmoreBAL40.071060.420.99
Austin Seferian-JenkinsTB40.07790.631.00

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