Fantasy Football: At What Age Does A Tight End Decline? (2019)
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Now that we’ve gone through running backs and wide receivers in the “What Age Do Players Decline?” series, it’s time to cover the tight ends. Most fantasy players avoid young tight ends, as there’s a learning curve at the position that prevents them from staying on the field enough to make a big difference. However, the NFL is changing as we know it, moving to younger skill-position players and allowing guys like Evan Engram to finish top-10 in his rookie season. Is this a sign of things to come, or an outlier?
If you’re new to the series, we’re here to help you figure out when to expect a drop-off in fantasy production from each position. We’re not here to tell you that a player’s body doesn’t start to fatigue once he gets past the age of maybe even 25 years old, but that doesn’t mean they don’t find their way into more fantasy points due to their experience in the game, getting better as a route-runner, blocker, etc. The only way to test this was to go through data over the last 12 years, look at players of all ages, with just one requirement to be included at the tight end position – minimum of 25 targets in that particular season to be included. By doing that, we’re removing the players who fizzle out of the league after a few years and not letting them affect the data. After removing them, we’re left with a total of 546 individual seasons, which is more than enough of a sample size.
Upside (Top-Three Potential)
Since starting this series three years ago, we’ve continually left Rob Gronkowski out of the sample, as he would heavily skew the numbers, particularly for the younger tight ends. He finished as a top-five tight end in six of his first eight seasons in the league, something that’s unheard of. He was the best to ever play the tight end position and should be considered an outlier, which is why he’s not included in the samples below.
According to the chart above, there’s now been 129 individual seasons where a tight end has been under the age of 25 and seen at least 25 targets. None of them were able to finish as a top-three tight end. Knowing the tight end position is one that relies so heavily on touchdowns, this is pretty crazy, right? To give you an idea as to just how good Gronkowski was, he accomplished this feat twice before turning 25. Here’s some of the tight ends who won’t turn 25 this year, though some believe they have breakout potential: David Njoku (23), Chris Herndon (23), Mark Andrews (24), Dallas Goedert (24), and Mike Gesicki (24). You may think it’s a coincidence, but both George Kittle and Eric Ebron turned 25 last year. Those who will turn 25 this year include O.J. Howard, Evan Engram, Hunter Henry, and Austin Hooper.
Once a tight end turns 25, though, all bets are off. They have plenty of upside at that age, as we’ve seen 8.0 percent of 25-year-olds turn in top-three performances, the fifth-highest mark on the chart. The peak for tight ends appears to be 30 years old, as the 34-year-old sample is far too small to make any concrete conclusions. But knowing that 4-of-34 (11.8 percent) of 30-year-old seasons have netted top-three results is a good sign. Remember, Gronkowski is not included in this sample size, but he turned 29 years old last season. Some tight ends who are entering their age-29 or age-30 season in 2019 include: Zach Ertz (29), Vance McDonald (29), Jordan Reed (29), Jack Doyle (29), Travis Kelce (30), and Kyle Rudolph (30). Those who have exceeded the age-30 territory include Jared Cook (32), Jimmy Graham (33), and Greg Olsen (34).
TE1 Potential (Top-12)
Let’s be real, top-three is rare territory and it’s tough to get in there, so the results could be a bit skewed. The issue is that top-12 isn’t likely tough enough, as targets are the most important stat to find in order to predict top-12 tight ends. However, maybe the age groups can show us when players are most likely to get those targets.
Once again, we see that age-25 season be one of importance to tight ends, as there’s been just 24-of-129 (18.6 percent) TE1 seasons from sub-25-year-olds, which is much lower than the mark of 28.0 percent once they hit 25 years of age. You can also see a slight dip in the age 28-31 territory, as that’s likely tight ends who’ve hung around just long enough, but are on the last legs of their career, while tight ends who play beyond the age of 31 are typically extremely talented, and that’s why you see a boost in the percentages. Those who fall into that territory in 2019 include: Jared Cook (32), Jimmy Graham (33), and Greg Olsen (34). History tells us that they have arguably a better chance to finish inside the top-12 than most, as 17-of-47 tight ends who’ve played at 32 and beyond have finished as a TE1.
What We Learned
Tight end is such a volatile position that relies so much on touchdowns, it’s tough to say anything with certainty, but if there’s one thing you should be certain of, it’s that tight ends gain a whole lot of potential once they hit the age of 25, while it’s unrealistic to expect anything out of them before that. It’s also nearly impossible to find a tight end not named Tony Gonzalez to finish with top-three upside after the age of 30, so drafting one even close to that territory means you’re taking away all of his potential draft equity.
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 123 tight ends who’ve seen 85-plus targets, and 97 of them finished top-12). Search for targets and don’t expect tight ends under the age of 25 to have a breakout season.