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How Much Does Draft Age Matter for Tight Ends? – The Wrong Read, No. 29

Welcome to the 29th installment of the “The Wrong Read,” an article series that reflects on recent podcast episodes, pushing the ideas discussed on the podcasts to their logical conclusions and offering some further thoughts on the topics broached by the guests and hosts. Now that rookies have been added to DRAFT Best Ball Leagues and MFL10s have started up, you might have some questions about how to handle the upcoming rookie class. Here’s my take on the value of rookie running backs in best ball leagues.

During the season I explored the importance of draft age for wide receivers, and confirmed, basically, what we already knew—that draft age is pretty important. Anthony Amico’s recent work has reconfirmed it. I did not at that time examine any other positions. But a recent discussion on the High-Stakes Lowdown brought up the issue of draft age for tight ends. Host Eric Balkman asked guest John Terry on a recent episode whether he was worried about Hayden Hurst’s age. Hurst will be 25 before the 2018 season starts. The discussion revolved around the number of productive years he could be expected to provide for dynasty owners, especially given the typical learning curve of the TE position in the NFL.

However, should Hurst’s advanced age be a concern even disregarding his potential career length? Many TEs play well into their 30s, so it’s not as though Hurst can’t be productive for a long time—at least long enough for most dynasty owners. But does his age signal a lower likelihood to ever produce at a high level in the NFL? We’ve seen that WRs who enter the league younger are at an advantage over those who enter the league at an older age. Younger WRs have historically produced higher-scoring fantasy seasons and have been more likely to produce top WR seasons. Are things the same for TEs? And what about other positions?

This article is the first (or second, depending on how you count) in a “Wrong Read” miniseries on draft age. I’m hoping to simply apply the methods in the original article to the other positions, with a few minor improvements. I’ll start (continue?) with TEs since that was the position that originally (subsequently?) spurred this exploration. I’ll follow up with quarterbacks and running backs. And maybe I’ll revisit WRs with a little new data and some new charts.

To refresh your memory in case you didn’t click the link to the original article, I’m looking at all player seasons since 2000. Any player who played a season since the year 2000 is included in my set, but I only include those seasons they played since 2000. So, most of Tony Gonzalez’s career is included, just not his first three seasons, since they occurred before the beginning of my data set. Within that set I’ve divided the seasons according to each player’s age during his first NFL season (how old was he on December 31 of the year he was drafted?). From there I’m looking for some relationship between career fantasy production and age of rookie season, or draft age.1

Draft Age and Career Production

First, here’s a chart showing average PPR points for each draft-age cohort:

These results are pretty stark—arguably even more so than at WR. Since 2000, TEs who played their rookie seasons at age 21 scored, on average, over 130 fantasy points per season over their careers. No other age cohort averaged even 60 fantasy points per season. As with WRs, it’s worthwhile to look at this data from a few different angles. What if we measure each cohort’s chance of reaching a certain threshold? Here’s a chart showing the percent of player seasons for each cohort that finished in the top 12 at the TE position:

These results are even more stark. TEs who were 21-year-old rookies played a total of 100 seasons since 2000. Fifty of those were TE1 seasons. No other cohort reached even 15 percent.

Controlling for Drastic Outperformers

Now, especially in the case of TEs, it’s true that a few outperformers can easily skew this chart. For instance, the aforementioned Gonzalez and Jason Witten account for more than half of the age-21 cohort’s TE1 seasons. Add in Rob Gronkowski and you’ve got only three players making up 34 of the 50 top-12 seasons produced by a TE who played his rookie season at age 21. Obviously it’s meaningful that each of these TEs was a 21-year-old rookie. But in a way it may also be misleading, precisely because these TEs have been so good for so long. This chart is not, in other words, showing us something like a success rate for a 21-year-old rookie TEs.

If, however, we only count each player once, and discriminate based on whether he did or did not ever produce a top-12 TE season in his career, the results become slightly more useful. They don’t, however, become less dramatic:

The sample is not very large (14 players), but nearly 60 percent of TEs who played their rookie seasons at age 21 went on to have at least one top-12 season. By comparison, less than 25 percent of 22-year-old rookies went on to have a top-12 season. No other cohort crested 15 percent.

So Just How Important Is Draft Age for TEs?

Based on these findings I would venture to say that draft age might be even more important for TEs than it is for WRs. I hesitate to state the point more strongly than this, however, because of the small samples and the possibility for a significant amount of skew. In any event, these findings do have me taking a more skeptical approach to Hurst and other older TE prospects.

There are no prospects in the current class who will still be 21 at the end of this year. However, in the real world, age is not a discrete variable, but is rather continuous. Therefore even prospects who will be 22 at the end of 2018, such as Ian Thomas or Dalton Schultz could be at a slight advantage over their peers. Or perhaps even better, consider some young TEs drafted in previous years who were 21-year-old rookies but who have yet to produce a top-12 season, such as David Njoku, Jesse James, and (gasp!) Maxx Williams. No guarantees, of course, but history suggests they should each have a decent probability of turning in at least one TE1 season.

  1. I know, it’s not a player’s “draft age” in the literal sense, but the absolute age itself actually doesn’t matter here. What we are interested in is a player’s age relative to his peers—how old was he compared to other players who were drafted in the same class? And how old was he as a rookie relative to all other players at his position? As long as we calculate everyone’s age in the same way, no harm done.  (back)

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