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“Early-TE” Should Be the New Fantasy Niche of 2019: Redraft Strategy for the Passing Revolution, Part 5

Welcome to my NFL Passing Revolution series, where I examine how the NFL’s shift towards efficient pass-heavy offenses has affected the landscape of fantasy football.

In Parts 2-4, I examined modern archetypes for fantasy RB1s, RB2s and RB3s and highlighted 2019 rookies who fit those paradigms. Now, it’s time to move on from running back and instead focus on the tight end position.

Be sure to check out this series’ previous installments:

Tight End Positional Trends Since 2002

Population Size

More so than any other skill position, the tight end population has increased dramatically over time. Tight ends boast a 38.8% increase in total fantasy contributors since 2002, and this increase has been steady and consistent. While injuries may play a factor in this systematic increase, it’s far more likely that this is a schematic shift over time. Once players like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Aaron Hernandez entered the league, offensive coordinators took notice. Now, athletic tight ends populate the landscape of NFL teams, and there seems to be little signs of reversing course.

Targets

Tight ends have also benefitted more than any other skill position in terms of total targets. The tight end position is up 29.4% in total targets despite a down year in 2018. Contrast this against a 2% decline for wide receivers and a 7% decline for running backs.

Total PPR Scoring

Moreover, tight end PPR scoring is up a staggering 46.4% despite only a 4.3% increase in target share. This suggests that tight ends are now doing more with less. Elite athletes like George Kittle and Zach Ertz now produce like bona fide wide receivers.

PPR Points per Player

Interestingly, tight end is the only skill position group that reports a positive Plus/Minus in PPR points per player (+5.5%) since 2002 as of last season. Even more impressively, it has achieved this despite a 38.8% increase in the tight end fantasy population.

Nonetheless, tight ends’ 52.1 PPR points per player is the lowest mark since 2005, and the tight end position has been in steady decline since 2012. It’s easy to blame Gronkowski’s or Graham’s recent declines for this result. However, it could just as easily be due to a surplus in rostered tight ends across the league. In fact, it’s arguable that this year-over-year decline makes elite tight ends even more valuable than ever before in fantasy history.

A Bunch of Charts

Now that we’ve established some global trends for the tight end position, it’s time to analyze how this increase in production is distributed among tight end fantasy tiers (TE1-TE3, TE4-TE6, TE7-TE12 and TE13-TE24). But, in order for me to discuss the differences between each fantasy tier, I’ve gotta hit you with a bunch of charts in a row. It’s important that you see how each tier stacks up against the rest rather than examining each in isolation. Below, you’ll find four line graphs charting each tier’s performance in Targets, Target Share %, PPR Points and PPR Share % since 2010:

The New “Big Three”

The 2018 season represents a massive increase in targets and PPR points for top-three tight ends. Who were these top three? None other than Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and George Kittle. Those players are the “New Big Three” among tight ends, having aptly replaced and thoroughly supplanted the “Old Big Three” of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Aaron Hernandez from 2011.

This group of players is so elite compared to its peers that “Early-TE” should be the niche strategy of 2019. The drop off from TE1-TE3 to TE4-TE6 is massive statistically. In fact, the difference between these two tiers is unrivaled at any other fantasy position. I wouldn’t necessarily reach for a tight end in Round 1; but, depending my draft position, I’m absolutely targeting a top-tier tight end in Round 2 or 3.

But, Couldn’t 2018 Just Be an Anomaly?

Last season corrected a significant slide in 2016 and 2017 wherein top-three tight ends had regressed to 2010 levels of production. The question now is: Will this elite production continue in 2019 or regress back to the 10-year mean?

Kittle seems like a lock to maintain his elite status barring injury. He’s a youthful 25-years old, a freakish athlete, and he benefits greatly in San Francisco’s Shanahanian offense. Neither Ertz nor Kelce show physical signs of slowing down, and both players remain the top pass-catching option in their respective offenses.

To be fair and thorough, Kelce’s team target share is somewhat contingent on the status of Tyreek Hill this season. Nonetheless, Kelce has operated as a top tight end with Hill for three straight years, and his upside is still elite regardless of Hill’s status for 2019.

Life After Kelce & Ertz

However, in dynasty formats, it may be wise to begin planning for life after Ertz and Kelce. Kelce turns 30-years old this season, and Ertz turns 29. Age itself is not necessarily the primary limiting factor for a player’s on-field success, but it does serve as a red flag signaling impending downside.

In the history of the NFL and AFL, 649 tight ends have maintained a career until age 30 while still earning offensive snaps. Among them, only three have amassed over 250 PPR points in a single season after turning 30. If Kelce achieves this in 2019, he would join their number as the fourth tight end ever to do so. Not even Rob Gronkowski achieved this in his hall-of-fame career.

Lowering the PPR threshold a bit, 19 tight ends have achieved at least 200 PPR points and 60 have earned at least 150 PPR points in a single season after turning 30. For context, Kelce’s PPR total last season was 294.6, Ertz’s was 280.3 and Kittle totaled 258.7 PPR points.

Despite the rarity of these late-age fantasy performances, we do have recent examples of 30+ year-old tight ends achieving elite fantasy status. Antonio Gates posted 223.1 PPR points at age 34, and Greg Olsen achieved 200+ points in back-to-back seasons from 2015 to 2016 (age 30-31, respectively). Most impressive of all, Tony Gonzalez joined the 200+ club in six of his final seven seasons from age 31 to 37.

So, it’s not a given that Kelce or Ertz will decline with age. But, it’s worth keeping in the back of your mind if you have either player in keeper or dynasty formats. If you can parlay a trade for Kittle, for example, you could insulate yourself from long-term downside risk.

Beyond the Big Three

Last season, TE4-TE6 declined in targets but actually gained ground in PPR points and PPR % share. On paper, this group’s target total was the second-lowest in nine seasons. However, its 11.0% tight end target share is squarely in line with historical marks, and its 11.8% tight end PPR share is tied for the highest since 2010.

Altogether, this data suggests that there is still some upside in targeting a tight end from this second tier. There’s little evidence that suggests any systematic decline in targets among this group. So, last season’s low target total may simply be due to statistical variance – or a “down year” in layman’s terms.

If that’s the case, then last season could reflect the fantasy floor for this group, which may imply positive regression in 2019. The big takeaway here is that if you miss on a top-3 tight end, all is not lost. There is still ample value in selecting from TE4-TE6.

Beware The Tier Break

However, after this second group, the data tells a different story. Based on nearly every measure, TE7 and below has experienced a steady decline since 2013. Last season marked nine-year lows for targets and PPR points for TE7-TE24.

Admittedly, the tight end position suffered major injuries last year. Evan Engram, O.J. Howard, Hunter Henry, Delanie Walker, Jack Doyle, Will Dissly, Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft all suffered major injuries in 2018. So, last season’s historic collapse may be due in part to the laundry list of injuries listed above.

However, even if injuries likely contributed to last season’s collapse, they by no means caused it. The 2018 season’s collapse fits a stable and consistent downward trend. So, even if 2019 brings a soft rebound in targets and PPR points for these groups, it’s unlikely to be a pivotal shift away from that trend.

Redraft Strategy for 2019

With all this in mind, my advice is simply to draft a top tight end. Seriously; if you’ve been on the fence until now, jump on over to Team Early-TE. Not only is there a massive drop off from TE1-TE3 to TE4-TE6, but there’s an even more significant drop off for all tight ends after that.

If you miss on a top-six tight end, your best bet is to try streaming the position. If you drafted someone like Austin Hooper, Kyle Rudolph, Trey Burton or David Njoku last season, you probably never really felt strong about “locking in” those guys no matter the opponent. In fact, depending on the competitiveness of your particular league, you may have tried streaming the position by matchup – or even rostering a second tight end just in case.

Nonetheless, based on the data I’ve reviewed, streaming from the waiver wire looks like a poor overall strategy. Rather than streaming from week-to-week, you should really view this as punting the position, and just hope to find a diamond in the rough. Regardless, I can’t justify spending mid-round draft capital on tight ends in these tiers – not when you can be loading up on high-upside receiving running backs instead.

On the flip side, in leagues that offer tight ends in the Flex position, this data serves as strong evidence to draft two tight ends from the top-six if possible. For long-time fantasy football die-hards, that may seem audacious, but the data suggests there’s strong merit in it. Especially considering the benefits associated with the Late Round QB and Zero-RB strategies, drafting two top-tier tight ends is more possible now than ever.

What to Expect in Part 6

In this series’ next installment, we’ll look at the wide receiver position. Whether you’re a Zero-RB die-hard or not, drafting a strong WR corps is essential to modern PPR redraft strategy. So, with TE gaining ground and RB1 as strong as ever, how do we prioritize WR value throughout fantasy drafts?

Image Credit: Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Travis Kelce.

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