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History Says Fade Rookie Tight Ends in Redraft

Three tight ends were drafted in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft. The only other draft since 1980 that can claim the same was 2002. In fact, just four other drafts in the last 20 years have seen two first-round TEs. We learned this weekend just how much those within the NFL share in the optimism for this year’s class.

On the heels of Hunter Henry tying for the league lead in TE touchdowns as a rookie in 2016, it bears repeating that rookie TEs simply don’t perform in fantasy football. The trends are overwhelming. Even Henry, who many remember as a 2016 success, caught just 36 passes for 482 yards in 13 games, finishing as TE18 in PPR leagues and TE11 in standard formats.

Let’s use the RotoViz Screener to dive into the numbers. Here’s a list of the top rookie TE seasons since 2000, sorted by PPR points.

Rookie TE

As you can see, only two rookie TEs in the past 17 seasons have posted 600 receiving yards. Jeremy Shockey sits head and shoulders above the crowd, turning in the TE3 PPR season in 2002. Beyond him, only two TEs on this list finished in the top 10 in their rookie season (John Carlson was TE7 in 2008 and Randy McMichael was TE9 in 2002).

Compare this to the wide receiver position, where 16 rookies since 2000 have posted 200-plus point PPR seasons. We expect more production from the WR position generally, but the above TE list includes just 17 seasons of 100-plus points.1

It’s no secret targets support fantasy scoring, and this trend is in large part the result of volume. Of this list, only Shockey saw more than 85 targets. Only five TEs saw 70-plus targets. Last year, all 17 TEs who scored more PPR points than Henry recorded at least 73 targets, and 15 of them saw 80 or more.

As far as WRs go, 67 rookies have stepped into 80-plus targets since 2000. Thirty have seen 100-plus.

The way Henry’s season was buoyed by TDs was also true for Rob Gronkowski, but keep in mind neither finished as top 10 producers. They simply didn’t see enough volume, and therefore didn’t rack up the necessary receptions and yards. If you’re hoping one of 2017’s rookie TEs can get by on a similar high-TD profile, note no other TE on the above list scored more than six TDs.

Even the level of scoring those two produced is difficult to come by on low volume. The disparity is clear – it’s significantly more difficult for rookie TEs to come in early and produce.

If you’re looking for optimism, I will make one note. Jordan Reed’s 60-45-499-3 2013 season came in just nine games. He’s a frequent comp for Evan Engram because both are more hybrid WR than true TE. Another hybrid, Tim Wright (who doesn’t show up in this screen for what I’m assuming is positional confusion), posted a 76-54-571-5 season in 2013 as a UDFA. I think it’s fair to suggest Engram’s in the best position to produce early; still, relying on one or two optimistic comps is a stretch – there are many other TEs in the hybrid mold who have come into the league and didn’t show up.

Here is the same screen as above sorted by N+1 PPR points, meaning the best sophomore seasons since 2000. We see a number of what would be considered the elite TEs since 2000 show up. Make note of the target increase these guys saw in their second seasons (i.e. compare the reTRGS.Q1 column to the reTRGS.Q1.N1 column). You also see more high-end scoring potential, a result of this group simply getting thrown at far more often.

Sophomore TEs

It’s not uncommon for sophomore TEs to start to see legitimate volume, which is probably driving the Hunter Henry optimism this offseason. What that sophomore list really emphasizes is just how rare it is for rookie TEs to see the type of volume necessary to produce at a high level. Of the scores of rookie TE seasons we looked at above, really only Shockey saw comparable volume to the top sophomores.

Why is it that we see a solid number of productive seasons in year two but such a strong trend against rookies? I have some theories, but the truth is I’m not entirely sure. What I do know is it’s never smart to bet on anomalies. O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, or David Njoku might one day be strong fantasy contributors, but history says to fade them in 2017.

  1. To continue the comparison, there were 107 rookie WR seasons of 100-plus points.  (back)
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