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Everything You Need to Know About the 2018 Tight End Class and How to Profit From It

The 2018 rookie tight end class can’t compete with the stellar 2017 class, but is the lack of hype creating values? Following up my examination of the historically good 2017 class, I’ll take a look at this year’s rookies and see if any stand out as bargains.

Prior to 2017, the last time three TEs were selected in the first round of the NFL draft was 2002. While the 2018 class can’t boast the same array of studs, you’d have to go back a decade to find a class where 10 TEs were taken in the first four rounds. With no TE in the first round of rookie ADP, it won’t cost much to buy in to this rookie class.

Methodology

The explanation of the methodology I use can be found in my look at the 2018 RB class, with a few differences:

  • 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. I put the 2018 class through the model earlier in the offseason.

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:TEViz2018-1TEViz2018-10 TEViz2018-6

The top of the 2018 class, Hayden Hurst (pick 25), Mike Gesicki (42), and Dallas Goedert (49), most closely mirrors the top of the 2013 class, Tyler Eifert (21), Zach Ertz (35), and Gavin Escobar (47). The depth falls off steeply from there though. In 2013, Vance McDonald (55), Travis Kelce (63), and Jordan Reed (85) were all drafted earlier than the fourth member of the 2018 class, Mark Andrews (86).

What the 2018 class lacks in star power it makes up for with solid depth, having the earliest draft picks at the bottom of the rookie class with Chris Herndon (pick 107) and Dalton Schultz (137). Both of these players landed in situations with plenty of opportunity at the position, however neither are the type of prospect that will be handed a large role in their rookie year.

Next, let’s look at how the draft classes stack up based on the TE model results using the same visualizations we used for draft position:TEViz2018-11 TEViz2018-5

The rookies perform much worse in this metric, with only the dreadful 2015 and 2016 classes faring worse. The 2015 class has unsurprisingly failed to produce any fantasy-relevant TEs, while the injured Hunter Henry is the lone bright spot in the 2016 class.2

The large disparity between the model results and draft position suggest that some players in this class may have been overdrafted. It’s worth noting that both Hurst and Jordan Akins are among the oldest TEs ever drafted, and thus basically received zeros for the age portion of the model. While it’s possible to discount their age due to their unique paths to the NFL,3 then it’s also probably necessary to ding their market share numbers that were put up against defenses filled with players years younger than them.

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:

2018TEZScores

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.TEViz2018-7

Though it’s a small sample, the combined z-scores have still correlated reasonably well to first-year PPR scoring for each class.

TEViz2018-9

 

It will be interesting to see how the 2018 class performs in their first year. While the TE success model dings a player like Hurst for his age, that actually is likely to help him get on the field earlier and produce as a rookie. It may not be great for his long term prospects, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the 2018 class outperform expectations a bit.

Finally, are fantasy owners properly valuing this class as a whole?

TEViz2018-4 TEViz2018-3

Opportunity and talent at other positions in the draft contribute to rookie ADP, but it seems like the 2018 class may be undervalued as a group, though much of this comes from players at the end of the draft.

Who to Target and who to FadeTEViz2018-8

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

Gesicki, the best prospect in the class, appears to be a moderate bargain, especially when available opportunity is factored in. It’s not a surprise to see players like Goedert and Ian Thomas above the trendline as they have two of the NFL’s best TEs sharing the depth chart,4 but Gesicki has no such concerns with a motley crew of veterans and fellow rookie Durham Smythe as his competition.

The top-heavy RB class is probably partially to blame for pushing Gesicki down draft boards. His combination of prospect pedigree and likely opportunity probably would have justified a late-first-round pick in a different draft class.

The new dynasty ADP app includes some deeper drafts, so it’s possible Herndon and Akins look later in ADP than some previous classes simply because they were previously counted as undrafted, but even at an ADP at the end of the fourth round, Herndon would be a bargain.

Like Gesicki, Herndon steps into a depth chart devoid of any established talent. Though the Jets haven’t used the TE much in recent years, they are coming into the season with their sixth new offensive coordinator in the past eight years. Herndon is not without concerns, an offseason DUI and nagging camp injuries have both slowed his progress, but the coaching staff has been saying all the right things about him.

We all know Hurst is old. He’ll also have to compete with Andrews, who may be a better pass catcher, for receiving work.5 That being said, the Ravens love throwing to TEs and he could get the most opportunity of any rookie in the class.

I’m definitely fading Hurst long term, however it’s unusual for a first-round TE to be available at such a cheap price. I wouldn’t totally be against drafting him at his current ADP in the third round and then look into flipping him to an owner hoping he continues to progress from a solid rookie year. I don’t really love the player, but the price isn’t terrible considering his situation.

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 2018 draft class is solid if unspectacular. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a few quality starters emerge from this class, but some of them may take time to get their opportunity. Only Hurst and Gesicki are likely to be factors in redraft formats this year.

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.

Few of this year’s TEs project as massive busts, so take a shot at any point in the draft and be comfortable in the knowledge that you got good value.

  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. Apologies to Austin Hooper truthers, but the jury is still out on him.  (back)
  3. Both pursued baseball careers before returning to football. A refreshing break from the basketball-player-turned-TE narrative, but not exactly a sport with a matching skillset.  (back)
  4. Which makes them solid holds if you have the roster space, but waiting on them in shallower leagues might not be advisable.  (back)
  5. Not to mention a bevy of other TEs the Ravens are carrying on their roster.  (back)
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