Dread it. Run from it. It still arrives.
Of course, I am talking about the Tight End Renaissance (as some have called it).
For years, the tight end position has been dominated by one or two names at the top. Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, the like. That changed last year. George Kittle broke the wall, finishing as the TE3 in PPR formats in only his second season. This year, two more have a legitimate chance to join him: O.J. Howard and Hunter Henry. Let’s dive into the numbers to see why they are undervalued in the fifth or sixth round of best ball drafts.
Tight ends take a long time to develop.
If you’ve played fantasy football before, chances are you’ve heard the old adage. Just don’t tell Howard. In 2017 – as a rookie – Howard led all tight ends (minimum 30 targets) in yards per target at 11.1. Then, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he did it again last year. Don’t get me wrong: Those numbers are going to regress toward the mean, but the fact that he came into the league and produced immediately shows that he is immensely talented.
Despite his obvious talent, Howard has struggled to get the targets necessary to establish himself as an elite fantasy tight end. There’s a good chance that changes this year. With DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries out of the picture, the Buccaneers have the fourth-most vacated targets in the league at 14.9 per game. Breshad Perriman and Scott Miller are the only pass-catchers of consequence they added this offseason, and that’s only if you define “of consequence” very generously.
|Notable Losses (2018 Targets per Game)||Notable Additions (Career Targets per Game)|
|Adam Humphries (6.6)||Breshad Perriman (3.4)|
|DeSean Jackson (6.2)||Scott Miller (208th overall pick in 2019 NFL Draft)|
With no one else to throw to, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Howard are going to get peppered with targets, and Cameron Brate will be sprinkled in as well. Fantasy-wise, Brate has been a thorn in Howard’s side his whole career, but Howard had almost completely marginalized Brate before his injury last season, as Brate never played more than 42% of snaps when Howard was healthy. Given Howard’s effectiveness last year, that gap will likely increase as the new coaching staff realizes what they have in their young tight end. Howard only averaged five targets per game last year – 13th among tight ends – but that number could skyrocket this year with so many available targets.
Currently, Howard’s ADP is suppressed because of the narrative that Bruce Arians doesn’t like to throw to tight ends. Well, of course that was the case in Arizona when his tight ends were Jermaine Gresham, Darren Fells, and Rob Housler. It’s not like Arians has never coached a fantasy-relevant tight end; he was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh when Heath Miller had multiple TE1 seasons.
In fact, Howard is actually a perfect fit for Arians’ system. Last year, Howard’s 12.4 aDOT ranked first among tight ends with at least 30 targets by a full yard. In 2017, his 11.8 aDOT trailed only Gronkowski.
|2017 Tight End aDOT Leaders||2018 Tight End aDOT Leaders|
|Rob Gronkowski (12.1)||OJ Howard (12.4)|
|OJ Howard (11.8)||Vernon Davis (11.4)|
|Vernon Davis (10.8)||Mark Andres (11.1)|
|Tyler Higbee (10.7)||Chris Herndon (11.0)|
|David Njoku (10.6)||Benjamin Watson (10.5)|
In 2017 – the last time Arians was a head coach – the Cardinals had three quarterbacks attempt at least 159 passes. All three were in the top 10 in aDOT. In 2016, Carson Palmer finished fifth in aDOT. Can you guess the only quarterback to finish in the top five in each of the last three seasons?
The answer is Jameis Winston.
Last year, Howard averaged the sixth-most fantasy points per game among tight ends even though he dropped a 0-0-0 line in Week 4 when he left early due to injury. Now, in a situation with almost 230 vacated targets and a coach that fits his play style perfectly, he is going to smash his sixth-round ADP.
If Henry had played last year, you probably wouldn’t be able to get him in the sixth round of fantasy drafts right now. However, a torn ACL sidelined him for the entire regular season, giving fantasy owners an opportunity to draft him at a discounted price. Like Howard, he defied the idea that tight ends can not produce from a young age. As a rookie, Henry produced nearly 35 fantasy points over expectation, the third highest mark for a rookie since 2000.1 Ins his second season, he again obliterated his opportunity-based expectations, finishing fourth at the position in total reFPOE.2
Tyrell Williams and Antonio Gates are no longer in Los Angeles, freeing up 21.0% of the Chargers’ targets from last season. Gates’ departure has an especially large impact on Henry because he kept Henry from truly breaking out a couple of years ago. Over the first two years of Henry’s career, Gates out-targeted his successor 145 to 115 and played 51.0% of snaps. With Gates gone, Henry will have a chance to shine as the Chargers’ three-down tight end. Gates finished as the TE1 overall multiple times and had six seasons with more than 100 targets. Henry has a long way to go before he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Gates, but he is on the right track so far.
Henry isn’t likely to put up Gates-2004-type numbers, but you don’t need him to if you’re picking him in the sixth round. Two years ago, Henry finished as the TE8 on a per-game basis despite playing only 64.7% of snaps. The sky’s the limit for him this year as the unquestioned starter.
What Impact Will Regression Have?
Howard and Henry are among the most efficient TEs when they have played. However, fantasy football is a volume-driven game; you want the players who are going to touch the ball the most because A) efficiency doesn’t correlate as strongly to fantasy points, and B) efficiency is highly regression-prone on a year-over-year basis.
The last two sections were about how Howard and Henry are going to get more volume this season, which satisfies Point A. Now let’s talk about Point B.
Using the RotoViz Screener, I looked at the tight ends who most outperformed their expected fantasy point total on a per-target basis (FPOEPA) since 2000. Among the 744 tight end seasons that met the 30-target threshold, Howard’s 2017 season ranked second and his 2018 ranked 12th. Henry’s 2016 ranked 21st and his 2017 ranked 69th.
Unfortunately, FPOEPA has almost no predictive ability on a year-over-year basis. Howard and Henry are going to get more targets this year, but that doesn’t matter if their per-target efficiency drops so significantly that it negates the impact of increased targets.
I went back to the trusty RotoViz Screener to look at how other players with unusually high FPOEPA marks performed in the following year. Surprisingly, regression had little-to-no impact on these players’ fantasy production.
|Minimum FPOEPA in Year N||Number of Players Above Threshold||Change in FPOEPA in Year N+1||Change in TGT/GM in Year N+1||Change in Fantasy PPG in Year N+1|
The worry that Howard and Henry’s increased volume could be minimized by impending regression actually explains why highly efficient players had similar fantasy production in the following season (although the causation arrow goes in the other direction): Those players earned more targets by playing so well. It’s likely that Howard and Henry would have seen more targets this year even if the Buccaneers and Chargers did not lose key members of their receiving corps. Factor in the targets their teams lost this offseason, and both of them are poised to see a huge jump in volume.
Image Credit: Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: O.J. Howard.
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