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Who to Target in the Best Tight End Class in Years

How does the 2017 rookie draft class compare to recent years? Are the players available at specific picks this year better or worse than the players available at those picks in other years? Should I be looking to use my 2017 rookie picks, or trade them? These are the questions that prompted me to start looking at the relative strength of this year’s draft class so I could develop a plan to attack my rookie and startup drafts.

This series started by analyzing the 2017 rookie running back and quarterback classes, and now it’s time to take a look at the tight ends.  TE is a tricky position in a dynasty format as fantasy players know that rookies typically take some time to develop, and the price to acquire a young TE increases more than any other position in the early portion of their careers. Drafting the right rookies can be crucial to winning the position in the long term.

Methodology

The explanation of the methodology I use can be found in my look at the 2017 RB class, with a few differences:

  • Similar to my analysis of the 2017 QB class, only the top-eight TEs by ADP in each class are used. The number of TEs that were frequently drafted in each class varied by the quality of the prospects. Including only the top eight1 struck a balance between including some relevant TEs but not including too many end-of-draft Mr. Irrelevant types.
  • I’ll be using the model created by Phil Watkins (@Advantalytics) to determine the draft-agnostic quality of TE prospects. Phil’s model does a fantastic job of isolating the important factors for becoming a starting TE and weeding out prospects with virtually no chance of starting. This is essential reading for anyone interested in rookie TEs, and the basis for this entire analysis, so be sure to check out the full description and his visualization of how the 2017 draft class stacks up.2
  • Since Phil’s model is draft-agnostic, I’ll use z-scores to take a look at the combined model results and draft position for parts of the analysis.

Results

We’ll start with the NFL draft, looking at both the average draft position of the eight prospects in each year’s sample, as well as a visualization of the way players were distributed in each class:

TEViz3 TEViz5

It’s no surprise that the 2017 class performs well here. We have to go all the way back to 2002 to find the last time three TEs were drafted in the first round of the NFL draft.3 Adam Shaheen, the fifth TE off the board in 2017,4 was selected earlier than the third TE in any class from the past five years. Though 2013 beats 2015 slightly on average, it’s mostly due to the difference in picks towards the tail end of the draft.

The 2015 and 2016 classes both stand out as poor draft classes. This is a boon for the opportunity of the incoming rookie class as they are generally facing competition from players with much lower draft pedigrees. Other than Bucky Hodges, who is buried behind established second-rounder Kyle Rudolph, no other TE has depth chart competition that was drafted earlier than the fourth round.5

And now, let’s look at how the draft classes stack up based on the model results using the same visualizations we used for draft position:

TEViz1c TEViz2

The 2017 class performs even better in this metric. Phil Watkins’ model outputs a percentage chance for a TE to start 64 NFL games,6 meaning that of the eight rookie TEs being commonly drafted in 2017 there is a better than 50 percent chance that four of them will be long-term starters. The fourth-highest TE in this class7 has a higher probability of success than all but three TEs drafted in the last five years.

The 2015 and 2016 classes continue to look dreadful, with Hunter Henry being the lone bright spot in the bunch. This has so far proven to be accurate on the field as well, with Henry the being the only TE to eclipse 100 PPR points thus far among the past two classes. There is still plenty of time for other members of these classes to break out, but none of these players look like someone dynasty owners should be targeting.

To see how these classes stack up in both metrics combined, I standardized the NFL draft position and starter probability for each player using z-scores, averaged each class, and then combined them. This gives us a rough ranking of where each class stands using both criteria:

Draft Class Avg. Starter z-score Avg. Draft z-score Combined
2013 0.13 -0.38 0.52
2014 0.33 0.05 0.28
2015 -0.60 0.19 -0.79
2016 -0.60 0.51 -1.11
2017 0.73 -0.37 1.10

The 2017 TE class is the best of the past five years by a sizeable margin.

Application

So now let’s answer the next logical question: “Does it matter?” If a stronger draft class doesn’t actually translate to fantasy success, then these results, while interesting, won’t really help us when deciding how to approach our dynasty drafts. To test this, I averaged the yearly PPR points from the same eight players used above and compared how they performed in each season they’ve played so far.

TEViz6

As expected, the strong 2013 class has performed the best by a large margin. The 2014 class has performed better than the 2015 class up to this point, however, injuries and off-field issues have plagued the 2014 TEs perhaps more than any other class. Colt Lyerla and A.C. Leonard never saw an NFL snap, Jace Amaro and Troy Niklas have barely stepped foot on the field due to injuries, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins‘ off the field issues have been well-chronicled.

Despite faring the worst in the draft class analysis, the 2016 TEs had the second-best rookie year. Hunter Henry did the majority of heavy lifting to achieve this result; his 134 PPR points were the most for any rookie in the past five seasons.

So, are dynasty owners properly valuing this draft class?

TEViz4a

On an average basis, the 2017 rookie TEs are being drafted much earlier than previous seasons, but there are still some opportunities to find value here.

Who to Target and who to Fade

TEViz7

Using the combined z-scores for draft position and starter probability, we can see which rookie TEs are values at their current ADPs.

The first name that jumps out here as undervalued is Jonnu Smith. His ADP may be due in part to the lack of immediate opportunity, as he’ll be playing behind Delanie Walker. Since rookie TEs are rarely startable in most formats anyway, and Walker is entering his age-33 season, I agree with Cort Smith that this isn’t a huge problem from a dynasty perspective. Smith may be slightly overrated by the starter model as his market share of yards was put up against lesser competition than most of the other players, but his speed score, bench press, and young age are still elite. Like Neil Dutton, I’ve been targeting Jonnu Smith heavily in leagues where I have roster space for a developmental TE.

Of the three first round TEs, David Njoku looks like the best value. I’m a big fan of Njoku in dynasty, however, it’s worth remembering that he still likely won’t be startable as a rookie, especially if Seth DeValve can earn a sizeable role. The starter model is not a big fan of Evan Engram, an older player with a mediocre bench-press. Engram did land in an excellent situation though, and if the Giants are creative in using him outside of a traditional TE role, he may be able to develop into a fantasy asset. O.J. Howard appears to be fairly valued at his current ADP.8

Gerald Everett, Adam Shaheen, and Bucky Hodges all come in above the trendline but also come with concerns. Shaheen and Everett both landed on teams with poor offenses that may take years to improve. Hodges was a late-round pick, and with Kyle Rudolph entrenched as the starter and still relatively young for a TE, Hodges has a long road to relevance. Everett and Shaheen make for solid late-round fliers, especially since they have a clear path to early-career opportunity without much strong competition on their respective depth charts.

Jake Butt is a unique case because his draft position was suppressed by his injury, and his starter probability was calculated using conservative estimates for his combine measurables. Butt was frequently discussed as a first-round pick prior to being hurt, so he may be a value in ways that can’t be captured by this analysis. I actually like Butt, as his injury, in my opinion, is mostly irrelevant from a dynasty perspective. He might not get on the field enough to have his value skyrocket like other players, but he could easily maintain or increase in value even without playing.

Howard may be slightly overpriced and Hodges may be buried too deep for my taste, but this draft class is excellent top to bottom, and it’s hard to really call any one of these eight players a definitive fade.

Reminder: Format Matters

In most traditional leagues, TEs are considered a “onesie” position because you only need one viable starting option. However, with the proliferation of dynasty leagues with deeper benches, additional Flex or TE starter slots, and TE-premium scoring, there are formats where owning starting TEs is more important than ever. The difference between a TE who is a legitimate weapon in his passing game and a backup TE floating around on waivers can be stark in these formats, and TE ADP will reflect that.

Pay attention to how TEs are valued in your league and adjust accordingly.

Conclusion

The 2017 TE draft class is the strongest in years and provides a number of targets for dynasty owners. If drafters don’t want to spend a first-round pick on one of the big three TEs, there is a cluster of excellent dynasty TE values in the third and fourth rounds of rookie drafts that have a good chance of paying off.

It should also be noted that, in any format, the decision to draft a rookie TE should always be balanced against the utility of the roster spot they will be occupying. While Pat Kerrane’s examination of trade values shows that rookie TEs are generally a solid investment, it’s an investment that will likely occupy a “dead” roster spot for a year before starting to pay off.

As 2015 and 2016 showed us, there is no guarantee that next year’s draft class will have any attractive TEs to target. Whether it be an expected stud at the top of the draft, or a later pick with high upside, 2017 is a great year to add a young TE to your roster.

NameYearStarter ProbabilityNFL Draft PositionRookie ADPProb zDraft zCombined z-score
Tyler Eifert20130.573821110.947-1.1612.109
Zach Ertz20130.58213520.70.983-0.9581.941
Gavin Escobar20130.19584733.5-0.648-0.7840.136
Vance McDonald20130.620855441.146-0.6691.814
Travis Kelce20130.33316324-0.069-0.5530.484
Jordan Reed20130.19728535.2-0.642-0.234-0.409
Levine Toilolo20130.093513347.1-1.080.462-1.542
Luke Willson20130.451915849.80.4330.824-0.391
Eric Ebron20140.8009106.81.906-1.3213.227
Austin Seferian-Jenkins20140.564338200.907-0.9151.822
Jace Amaro20140.72884921.11.602-0.7552.357
Troy Niklas20140.440652390.385-0.7121.097
C.J. Fiedorowicz20140.52736542.60.751-0.5241.275
Richard Rodgers20140.19659846.1-0.645-0.045-0.6
Colt Lyerla20140.106126335.8-1.0272.346-3.373
A.C. Leonard20140.051426355.1-1.2582.346-3.604
Maxx Williams20150.30385517.6-0.192-0.6690.476
Clive Walford20150.05696834.1-1.235-0.48-0.755
Tyler Kroft20150.10348545.7-1.038-0.234-0.805
Jeff Heuerman20150.37699247.20.116-0.1320.248
Blake Bell20150.013511750-1.4180.23-1.648
MyCole Pruitt20150.307314351.4-0.1780.607-0.785
Jesse James20150.345516043.6-0.0160.853-0.87
Nick O'Leary20150.158519449.2-0.8061.346-2.152
Hunter Henry20160.65753517.71.301-0.9582.259
Austin Hooper20160.19278125.3-0.661-0.292-0.37
Nick Vannett20160.01499443.3-1.412-0.103-1.309
Tyler Higbee20160.028211032.7-1.3560.129-1.485
Seth DeValve20160.365813846.30.0690.534-0.465
Jerell Adams20160.088118441.1-1.1031.201-2.304
Rico Gathers20160.070921747.8-1.1761.679-2.855
Thomas Duarte20160.24423148.1-0.4451.882-2.327
O.J. Howard20170.6154197.71.123-1.192.313
Evan Engram20170.33832312.8-0.047-1.1321.086
David Njoku20170.69412912.31.455-1.0452.501
Gerald Everett20170.50544320.657-0.8281.485
Adam Shaheen20170.33354532.6-0.067-0.8130.746
Jonnu Smith20170.778710042.41.812-0.0161.829
Jake Butt20170.210214534.6-0.5880.636-1.223
Bucky Hodges20170.7076201421.5121.4480.065

  1. In some cases some TEs who were drafted only a handful of times fell in the top eight. When this happened I removed them from the sample and used the next TE in positional ADP who was drafted a significant number of times.  (back)
  2. Note that after talking with Phil some of the data has been updated. A few prospects were missing bench-press measurements in the original data set. I’ve also estimated some scores for prospects who don’t have a full data set to work with, such as Jake Butt who was injured and thus did not participate in the combine or his school’s pro day.  (back)
  3. Jeremy Shockey, Daniel Graham, and Jerramy Stevens  (back)
  4. Pick 45.  (back)
  5. Jonnu Smith will have to contend with Delanie Walker, who is well-established but is at least later in his career.  (back)
  6. Four seasons.  (back)
  7. O.J.Howard  (back)
  8. I strongly prefer Njoku and personally plan to fade Howard at his ADP while trying to grab Njoku a few picks later.  (back)

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