Originally published March 23, Can Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle Coexist With the Colts? is part of our Memorial Day weekend free look at the best of RotoViz.
The Colts signing of former Lions tight end Eric Ebron, while on paper a smart footballing move by the Colts, probably elicited more than its fair share of groans from fantasy owners. The idea of the team adding a former first-round pick to compete with Jack Doyle seems to be a death knell for both of their fantasy values heading into the 2018 season.
There is some justification for these fears, I grant you. Without Andrew Luck at quarterback in 2017, Doyle was a steady safety blanket for Jacoby Brissett and more than paid his way in fantasy. Ebron endured a mostly disappointing campaign but did come on strong at the end of the season.
On first glance, it’s hard to see how this move can be good for either player. If you believe that, and are in the mood to be surprised, then I invite you to read on.
The popularity of 1-2 Personnel
According to Sharp Football Stats, over the course of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, NFL teams lined up in 12 personnel (one running back, two TEs) on 19 percent of their offensive snaps. The only grouping to be used more was 11, with three wide receivers accompanying the RB and TE. Despite its prevalence, 12 personnel did not automatically signal a passing play. Teams lining up in 12 passed on only 46 percent of their plays, the fifth most among the nine most frequent groupings.
Having two TEs on the field still gave multiple TEs on the same team a chance to make plays in the passing game. Since the beginning of the 2011 season, there have been 14 instances of one team boasting two TEs who finished the season TE24 or higher. The Patriots duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez led the way in 2011, finishing as TE1 and TE3 respectively.
In the six seasons since, while there have been 11 dynamic duos, none have had two players each finishing as high as Gronkowski and Hernandez. Only four of the partnerships have included a player who finished in the top 10. One of them was the Gronkowski/Hernandez axis a year later (TE5 and TE17). Obviously, not every team has been able to boast two such superstars, but teams also have not allocated so many of their targets to their two leading TEs. In 2011, 39 percent of total team targets for the Patriots went the way of Gronkowski and Hernandez. Of the 11 duos since, the highest share a single partnership saw was 28 percent. That was in 2016 when C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin finished as TE17 and TE24.
It’s highly unlikely that a team is going to be able to support two top-tier TE talents in fantasy without a boatload of volume and one of the greatest QBs in history tasked with getting them the ball. But does this mean that we should dismiss Doyle and Ebron immediately, as single players or as a unit? No.
Fertile Proving Ground
While past seasons under a previous head coach shouldn’t hold too much significance or us, the Colts do have a history of producing multiple relevant TEs. Indeed, of the 11 instances since 2011 of two players cracking the top 24, two of them came from Colts players. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen were the TE7 and TE19 in 2014, while Allen also played second fiddle at TE22 in 2016 behind the TE13…Jack Doyle.
While things sure have changed for the Colts since Andrew Luck last took a regular season snap, one thing that hasn’t been erased is his efficient use of the TE in the Colts offense.
Going back to Sharp Football Stats, the Colts have been one of the leading drivers behind the popularity of 12 personnel. Over the last two seasons, they lined up that way on 30 percent of their offensive snaps. This is three percent more than their nearest rivals. They were smack in the middle in terms of how often they passed out of 12 (44 percent). This number may not come as too much of a shock when you see the TEs they’ve had at their disposal.
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The Colts new head coach, Frank Reich, is coming to the team after two seasons as offensive coordinator with the Eagles. The Eagles lined up in 12 personnel on 27 percent of their snaps between 2016 and 2017…trailing only the Colts. While Reich was not the play caller for the Eagles, it should be noted that those Eagles teams passed on 58 percent of their snaps out of 12 personnel. This was the second-highest rate in the NFL over the last two seasons. So you have a team that historically likes to have two TEs on the field, a QB with a track record of efficiently connecting with TEs, and a coach inclined to pass the ball when two TEs are on the field. Why shouldn’t we find this encouraging again?
While Ebron has the draft capital befitting a former first-rounder and is arguably more athletic than Doyle, the overall profiles and recent snap percentages of the two players suggest that Doyle will be the leading TE, with Ebron relieving him on occasion and joining the fun whenever the Colts go to 12.
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Mock drafters agree. Doyle is currently going off the board at the end of the seventh round as the TE10, while Ebron isn’t finding a home until the end of the 11th.
The 2011 Gronkowski and Hernandez are not walking into any team’s training facility any time soon. But teams shouldn’t stop trying to find ways to get as many of the talented young breed of tight ends onto the field as they can. A tight end renaissance is coming, and while it may be a while before a team can boast multiple elite TE1s in fantasy, that doesn’t mean that two players on the same team can’t reward their owner’s faith on a weekly basis.