What Does it Take to Finish as a TE1? (2018 Fantasy Football)
The goal of all fantasy owners is to draft the best player at each position – no kidding. The best players score the most fantasy points, and the team with the most fantasy points wins. It’s pretty simple. But outside of ADP, expert projections, and gut feeling, how should owners approach drafting a player who is “the best?” What does that even really mean? Owners need to understand common statistical thresholds, averages, and minimums that “the best” players share so that they can adequately project, value, and contextualize players when drafting a team.
In last week’s article, we talked about wide receivers. This week we’re talking tight ends. This is one of the hardest positions to draft outside of the usually-obvious top two or three studs. The remaining available players are volatile in their production, usually putting up relatively low reception and receiving yard totals. They are often TD-dependent, which is one of the most difficult stats to predict. There are some exceptions including Delanie Walker, Zach Ertz, and Greg Olsen, who consistently churn out yards with somewhat-limited TD production.
In this article, we will answer the question, “What does it really take to be a TE1?” We went back five years to 2013 and compiled yearly and cumulative averages for all TE1s over that time period in standard scoring leagues. We used targets, receptions, receiving yards, receiving TDs, and percentage of total points made up by TDs (TD points divided by total points) to determine the average statistics of a TE1 in a given year and cumulatively over the last five years. Minimum stat lines were acknowledged as were outliers and important trends.
Using these numbers for reference, we can evaluate the likelihood that a receiver will finish as a TE1 in 2018. Let’s take a look at 10 TEs using our statistics to determine if that player has the potential to finish as a TE1 in 2018. Obvious top finishers such as Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce were omitted.
You can see the top-12 finishers last year and their statistics for the season below. Statistics are outlined as the following: Targets-Receptions-Receiving yards-Receiving TDs-TD percentage of points. The average line for a TE1 in standard scoring leagues was 95 targets, 63 receptions, 696 receiving yards, six TDs, and 36% TD points (95-63-696-6-36%).
- Rob Gronkowski – 105-69-1084-8-31%
- Travis Kelce – 122-83-1038-8-32%
- Zach Ertz – 110-74-824-8-37%
- Jimmy Graham – 96-57-520-10-54%
- Evan Engram – 115-64-722-6-33%
- Kyle Rudolph – 81-57-532-8-47%
- Delanie Walker – 111-74-807-3-18%
- Cameron Brate – 77-48-591-6-38%
- Jack Doyle – 108-80-690-4-26%
- Jason Witten – 87-63-560-5-35%
- Tyler Kroft – 62-42-404-7-51%
- Hunter Henry – 62-45-579-4-29%
Brate, Kroft, and Henry all finished with less than 50 receptions, making them responsible for three out of six such seasons over the last five years among TE1s. Kroft’s 404 yards were easily the fewest among TE1s over the last five seasons. Of the 12 TE1s, five finished under the yearly average for targets, five finished under the yearly average for receptions, seven finished under the yearly average for receiving yards, four finished under the yearly average for receiving TDs, and seven finished under the TD percentage of points.
Here are the totals from the remaining years and the five-year average:
- 2016: 96-64-773-6-32%
- 2015: 107-72-859-7-31%
- 2014: 102-69-822-7-34%
- 2013: 105-70-827-8-36%
Five-year average (2013 – 2017): 101-68-795-7-34%
The most recent season, 2017, saw five-year lows in all statistical categories except for TD percentage of points. This means that in 2017, TE1s were more TD dependent than ever. This reinforces the notion that TE production is harder to predict than other skill positions because of TD volatility. The bare minimum TE1 stats for each category over the last five years were:
- Targets: Hunter Henry, 53, 2016
- Receptions: Hunter Henry, 36, 2016
- Receiving yards: Tyler Kroft, 404, 2017
- Receiving TDs: Zach Ertz, 2, 2015
- TD percentage of points: Zach Ertz, 12%, 2015
Finally, consider these facts before we jump into our projections:
- Of the 60 TE1s over the last five seasons, only six have finished with less than 50 receptions.
- Only six have finished with fewer than four TDs.
- Only three have finished with fewer than 500 yards receiving.
- Only four have received less than 70 targets, with two of them coming in 2017 (Kroft, Henry).
- Only 10 have finished with fewer than 55 receptions.
Jimmy Graham (GB) ADP: TE4
Admittedly, he’s one of the hardest TEs (or players) for me to rank this year. It’s sacrilegious — near blasphemous — to question the fantasy production of a man with 6,800 yards and 69 TDs in just eight NFL seasons. But here we are. Strictly from a numbers perspective, Graham is a rockstar. Since he came into the league in 2010, he is a close second only to Gronkowski in yards and receiving TDs by a TE. His career season averages of 70-850 and nearly nine TDs are well above the TE1 averages.
But there’s an old saying that goes, “you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger, and you don’t draft an Aaron Rodgers TE.” Ok, I might be paraphrasing, but in his 10 NFL seasons as a starter, Rodgers has supported a TE1 just twice. In his five most recent seasons in which he played at least 15 games, Rodgers’ top TE had an average finish of TE19. The argument could be made that Rodgers has never played with a TE of Graham’s caliber — and that is very true, but the targets will not be there for Graham consistently, and he will be TD-dependent. In Seattle’s passing attack last season, Graham recorded his lowest receiving yards, his lowest per-game targets, and his lowest per-game receptions since his rookie season.
Green Bay has many more options in the receiving corps than the Seahawks did, so I’m not confident in Graham in 2018. In this sure-to-be high-flying offense, Graham should get some red-zone looks, but his ceiling is capped because of TD-dependency. If I had to bet on it, I’d say Graham finishes just outside of TE1 territory this season.
Trey Burton (CHI) ADP: TE9
The hype is real for Burton this offseason, with his ADP rising all the way to TE9. Burton has seen limited action in four years as an Eagle, accumulating just a 3-54-0 line in his first two seasons and a 60-575-6 line in his last two seasons. Burton drew a lot of positive attention last season, playing well as a backup to Zach Ertz but shining in the two games Ertz missed. In Weeks 9 and 14, without Ertz, Burton went 7-112-3. He’s a big body, and he’s coming from a disciplined and winning culture in Philadelphia, hot off of a recent Super Bowl victory.
Reports are that Mitchell Trubisky has had “the training wheels taken off,” and the offense will open up more this year. Burton played in a high-scoring Philly offense, and as the primary TE for a second-year QB, he figures to have a significant role in Chicago. Burton realistically has only Allen Robinson to compete for targets, with rookie Anthony Miller yet unproven. Burton can easily generate 75-85 targets this year and turn them into at least five TDs. He will finish as a TE1 this season, and at his current TE9 price, he’s appropriately valued with enough upside to exceed his ADP.
George Kittle/Garrett Celek (SF) ADP: TE11/TE47
Let’s talk 49ers TEs. I had to mention both because as much as the fantasy community likes to hype Kittle, there is no clear fantasy contributor at TE on this team. Last year, Kittle was the promising rookie who finished with more targets, receptions, and yards, but the vet, Celek, finished with more TDs. In fact, from Weeks 9-16, Celek had a 14-247-3 line, and Kittle had a 15-165-1 line.
The second-half stats aren’t all-telling, and I believe Kittle is the highest scoring of the two in 2018. For the 2017 season, Kittle had 30 more targets, 21 more receptions, and 179 more receiving yards, but Celek had a four to two advantage in TDs scored. In his seventh year, I don’t expect Celek to become Rob Gronkowski, but I do expect him to eat into Kittle’s total numbers, especially around the goal line. Both of these guys will have a role, limiting their total numbers. Neither of these players offer TE1 upside, and Kittle’s ridiculous TE11 asking price makes him wildly overvalued.
Tyler Eifert (CIN) ADP: TE15
Eifert burst onto the scene in 2015 with his 13 TD outburst in just 13 games. He finished as the overall TE5 that year. The following season, Eifert played only eight games, and he was on pace for a 94-58-788-10 season, which would have been good for the overall TE1 finish. An injury-prone player, Eifert has played in only 39 out of 80 games in his first five seasons. Reports from Bengals camp are that Eifert’s availability is “up in the air.”
That’s concerning, considering his injury history and that he was cleared by doctors to participate in team activities this spring. The team has plans for Eifert in this offense after extending his contract earlier this offseason, despite nagging injuries. If he’s healthy, Eifert is a threat for double-digit TDs every single year. His career mark of just under five targets per game below the average of a TE1, but his scoring more than makes up for it. I think he stays healthy and manages a top-12 effort.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins (TB) ADP: TE16
Seferian-Jenkins, often seen as a sleeper in fantasy leagues, has never produced a TE1 season. As the primary TE option for the Jets last season, ASJ finished with a 74-50-357-3 line in just 13 games, a full-season pace of 90-61-439-4 — right on the average TE1 fringe. He’s no longer on the Jets, signing with Jacksonville in the offseason. Here, ASJ will be the primary TE option again, with longtime Jag, Marcedes Lewis, gone after last season.
Jacksonville’s TE stats over the last three seasons average 115-71-691-6 for total team TE production and 60-33-351-5 for the team’s starter. As of now, there are four other TEs on the roster, with a combined career total of 46-434-2. The Jags also lost Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns in free agency.
Blake Bortles has to throw to someone, and while I like Keelan Cole as a sleeper, the WR corps of Jacksonville is one of the least appealing in all of the NFL. Leonard Fournette is not an exceptionally gifted pass catcher either. Expect ASJ to take full advantage of an increased opportunity in Jacksonville this season and finally crack the top-12.
Mike Gesicki (MIA) ADP: TE21
Gesicki incredibly finished with the highest SPARQ score at the NFL combine this season, narrowly edging former teammate and second-overall pick Saquon Barkley. The score is a composite number made up of many stats in a formula developed by Nike. Gesicki finished in the 99th percentile in SPARQ, and while that score isn’t everything, it’s something impressive. He is a rare athlete, leaving Penn State as their all-time leader in TE receptions and receiving yards and their all-time leading scorer in basketball. The loss of Jarvis Landry to Cleveland leaves 161 targets, and MG has a good shot at absorbing some of them, but this is a crowded offense.
His talent level is unquestionable, but I don’t think he will have enough targets to sustain a TE1 finish. This receiving corps added Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson in free agency, and they returned deep-threat Kenny Stills and perennial disappointment DeVante Parker. Gavin Escobar was added as another TE.
Gesicki is one year away from a breakout, but he is not a TE1 this season. This offense has too many mouths to feed, and I’m not confident in Ryan Tannehill’s abilities as a thrower of the football. I’ll take the former Nittany Lion at his current price and be very happy to have him on my bench as my team’s TE2.
Hayden Hurst (BAL) ADP: TE22
Yes, another rookie. Why not? Hurst was the Ravens’ first-round pick in the draft this year. After a solid career with South Carolina, the former Gamecock heads to Baltimore where he can expect a lot of production in his rookie campaign. Hurst was drafted by one of the most TE-friendly teams in football. Baltimore has averaged 107 TE targets per season over the last three, and Hurst has little competition for targets at the position. Three of the teams five TEs are rookies, and Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle have combined for 99-754-2 in six combined NFL seasons.
Hurst was picked 25th in the draft for a reason. Baltimore invested heavy draft capital into him because they believe that he fits into their revamped offense, and they plan to utilize him. I think in his first year, despite the numbers I’ve already outlined, Hurst falls just short of a TE1 finish. A TE14-17 finish is much more realistic, and he will be a great fill-in and spot start to add to your bench producing some quality weeks along the way.
Benjamin Watson (NO) ADP: TE24
Watson has surprisingly been in the league since 2004 when he won a Super Bowl with the Patriots in his rookie season. Since he came into the league, Watson has been a solid fill-in and backup option before his career year in 2015 with New Orleans, where he finished with a 74-825-6 line on 110 targets. That year, Watson was second on his team in targets and receiving TDs only to Brandin Cooks.
Watson missed 2016 due to injury, but his last two seasons with the Saints and Ravens have been notable. His averages over those two years work out to 68-674-5 on 95 targets. Those numbers meet the TE1 averages, and Watson is back in New Orleans for 2018.
He’s in for a sneaky-good season, playing once again with future-HOFer Drew Brees. I think a saintly TE1 season is in the cards for Watson. Draft the 37-year-old late, and reap the benefits.
Rico Gathers (DAL) ADP: TE32
We’re taking a deep dive and a leap of faith here with the third-year Cowboy. Gathers was a standout at Baylor on the basketball team, never playing college football. As a proud WVU alum, (let’s go Mountaineers!) I can, unfortunately, remember Gathers having some great games in Big 12 play. He took a chance in the NFL, got drafted in 2016, and had a great preseason in 2017 before an injury derailed his promising season. Gathers is not a lock to make the 53-man roster, but his size and athleticism make him an ideal change-of-the-guard to Jason Witten. Gathers was close to Witten and learned his tips, tricks, and work ethic.
Although it may seem like a fluff piece, this article outlines Gathers’ daily inspiration he draws from a note handwritten by Witten. Gathers has been posting regular videos of his workouts this offseason, including route running and most importantly, blocking. “America’s Team” saw the great Jason Witten retire, and Gathers’ only real competition for the starting gig will be Geoff Swaim who has totaled a 9-94-0 line in Dallas in his three years there. The receiving corps in Dallas features Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, and rookie Michael Gallup. It is one of the weakest lineups in the league, and Gathers (at 6’6, 280) will be a red-zone monster.
His rebounding ability at Baylor should transition well to the NFL, and we’ve seen some great basketball players become great TEs (Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates come to mind). Gathers is going undrafted in most leagues, and he is worth a pickup. I firmly believe that if he wins the starting job, he will be a TE1 based on the double-digit TDs he will score. Expect to hear, “Prescott to Gathers” quite a bit in 2018.