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Fantasy Football: At What Age Does A Tight End Succeed/Decline?

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Apr 13, 2017

Rob Gronkowski is quite possibly the best tight end to ever play the game, and has made things seem possible for younger tight ends that really aren’t.

Now that we’ve gone through the wide receivers and running backs age of decline, we’ll take a look at one of the more fragile positions, the tight end. When I say fragile, it’s because there’s really only one viable tight end per team. Of course you have your rare circumstances like Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez or even Antonio Gates/Hunter Henry last year, but we know those situations are rare. Therefore, we’re left with just 32 potential openings for a tight end to make an impact.

Because of the limited players available, we had to knock down the requirements just a little bit from what we had for the wide receivers. Instead of requiring 50 targets to take part in the study, tight ends had to have just 25 targets in any particular season in order to be included. Going through the last 10 years, there were 455 players who could be used in the research. So, let’s search for our answer – At what age does a tight end hit his fantasy prime, and at what age does he start to decline?

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Upside (Top-Three Potential)

When starting the tight ends, I knew that the figures could be skewed because of an individual named Rob Gronkowski, who has finished inside the top five tight ends in five of his seven NFL seasons. Because of that, I wanted to give you the charts without him included, due to the small sample size. We all know that he’s an outlier for all tight ends and it’s very likely that he’ll go down as the best of all-time. So keep in mind that Gronkowski is not included in the samples below.

Sample Age Top-3 Finish
5 AGE 21 0.0%
17 AGE 22 0.0%
33 AGE 23 0.0%
41 AGE 24 0.0%
65 AGE 25 7.7%
59 AGE 26 5.1%
52 AGE 27 7.7%
53 AGE 28 3.8%
35 AGE 29 8.6%
28 AGE 30 14.3%
26 AGE 31 3.8%
16 AGE 32 6.3%
7 AGE 33 0.0%
5 AGE 34 20.0%
4 AGE 35 0.0%
2 AGE 36 0.0%

 

As you can see, there has been no tight end in the last 10 years to finish in the top three at the position before the age of 25 (sans Gronkowski who did that twice before turning 25). The tight ends that won’t turn 25 before the end of the year include: Hunter Henry, Austin Hooper, and Eric Ebron. There is a clear line with tight ends in between the ages of 25 to 32, and while you see the high number at age-34, it was just one player (Antonio Gates in 2014) who finished there on a small sample. Even so, he was the only one of the 18 tight ends who played beyond the age of 32 to finish top-three, and it’s important to know that Tony Gonzalez is included in that bunch (though he did finish in the top eight each year after turning 33). The only tight ends playing beyond the age of 33 now are Jason Witten and Antonio Gates.

The highest percentage came at the age of 30, and it wasn’t really all that close, as four of the 28 tight ends who played at that age finished in the top three. Again, this is a very rare accomplishment to finish in the top three, as there were only 30 spots possible over the last 10 years, and Gronkowski took up four of them. When you see that seven of the remaining 26 spots were occupied by 29 and 30-year-olds, we have a clear prime for upside. A few of the prominent tight ends entering their prime in 2017 include: Coby Fleener, Julius Thomas, Martellus Bennett, and Jared Cook.

 

TE1 Numbers (Top-12)

Continuing along our study without Gronkowski, the next sample came down to those who finished in the TE1 range of 12-team leagues. This was the part of the study where I was extremely curious, because although targets matter to every position, I always felt like the correlation between targets and fantasy finish for tight ends was higher than all other positions.

Sample Age Top-12 Finish
5 AGE 21 20.0%
17 AGE 22 23.5%
33 AGE 23 12.1%
41 AGE 24 24.4%
65 AGE 25 27.7%
59 AGE 26 30.5%
52 AGE 27 26.9%
53 AGE 28 13.2%
35 AGE 29 22.9%
28 AGE 30 35.7%
26 AGE 31 19.2%
16 AGE 32 31.3%
7 AGE 33 42.9%
5 AGE 34 40.0%
4 AGE 35 75.0%
2 AGE 36 100.0%

 

Needless to say, the results are very similar throughout the ages, until you get down to the smaller sample size of those who were age-32 or older. The players that play past the age of 31 at tight end are typically those who have been among the best in the game for nearly a decade, which would obviously skew the results in their favor. Some players entering their age-32 or older season in 2017 are: Greg Olsen, Dennis Pitta, Gary Barnidge, Delanie Walker, Zach Miller, Vernon Davis, Witten, and Gates.

 

What We Learned

What you should take away from this article is that a tight end’s upside to finish in the top three at his position is almost non-existent after the age of 32. And unless their name is Rob Gronkowski, it’s basically impossible that they’ll finish top-three before their age-25 season. Outside of that, tight end age doesn’t matter all that much. If you find a tight end that’s slated to see 85-plus targets, there’s about an 80 percent chance that he’s going to finish as a top 12 tight end, regardless of age (Since 2009, there have been 105 tight ends who’ve seen 85-plus targets, and 82 of them have finished top-12).

More Analysis
At what age do RBs decline?
At what age do WRs decline?


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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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