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Tight End Drafting Strategy (2020 Fantasy Football)

by Josh Shepardson | @BChad50 | Featured Writer
Jun 2, 2020

Travis Kelce finished outside the top-12 at the position in PPR scoring only one-time last year.

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Last year, only 10 tight ends averaged more than 10 points per game in point per reception (PPR) formats, according to our Fantasy Football Leaders tool. Two members of that group failed to reach double-digit games. It’s a position that features some promising players. However, many of those players lack a track record of reliable production. There’s potential for the position to provide more depth than last year, but there’s also a risk of continued poor performance beyond the top options.

There’s a clear-cut top-two options at the position. Only two players, Travis Kelce (16.7) and George Kittle (21.7) have an average draft position (ADP) inside the top-25 picks in PPR formats, per the ADP page here at FantasyPros — after excluding Fantasy Football Calculator from the sources due to some oddities in their ADP data. Two more tight ends have an ADP inside the top-50 players with one falling just outside that group with an ADP of 51.7. Beyond that trio, there’s roughly a two-round gap in ADP before a cluster of tight ends start flying off the board around pick 75. The position is heavily tiered, but what’s the best approach to attacking the position in fantasy this year? Further, is waiting until the last rounds and simply punting the position in order to stream a worthwhile endeavor?

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The Big Two

Kelce and Kittle bring a unique combination of efficiency and volume to the table. Last year, only three tight ends were targeted more than 100 times and bested 9.00 yards per target, according to Pro-Football-Reference’s Play Index Tool. Kelce and Kittle were two of the three, while the third member of the trio will be highlighted in a forthcoming section below.

Their efficiency and hefty usage helped make them the only two tight ends to best 75.0 receiving yards per game last year with Kelce averaging 76.8 receiving yards per game and Kittle tallying 75.2 receiving yards per game. Interestingly, both bested 80.0 receiving yards per game in 2018 at 83.5 receiving per game for the former and 86.1 receiving yards per game for the latter.

In addition to posting elite overall numbers, they were also remarkably consistent on a week-to-week basis. The following table will illustrate a breakdown of Kelce’s and Kittle’s weekly finish among their tight end peers in 2019 in PPR formats. Their weekly rank at the position was collected by sorting by week on our Fantasy Football Leaders page for Week 1 through Week 16 — excluding Week 17 since most fantasy leagues do not use it for fantasy purposes.

Player TE1-3 TE4-6 TE7-12 TE13-24 TE24+
Travis Kelce 4 4 6 1 0
George Kittle 5 2 4 1 1

Kelce finished outside the top-12 at the position in PPR scoring only one-time last year with a TE13 finish in the opening week of the 2019 campaign. Kittle missed two contests due to injury and fell outside the top-12 tight ends in PPR scoring a pair of times. However, he twice finished as the top scorer at the position in 2019. Comparatively, Kelce accomplished that feat one-time last season. As the table illustrates, both provide gamers bankable starting tight end production nearly every week.

Their unmatched combination of a high weekly ceiling and floor makes them both worth their second-round price tag. I’m not particularly inclined to reach for either at the back end of the first round or the turn to open the second round in 12-team leagues, though.

Full Fades

This isn’t the first time I’ve voiced my disinterest in the following duo of tight ends, but I’m completely out on Zach Ertz (39.0) and Austin Hooper (100.0) anywhere near their respective ADPs. I first discussed Ertz this offseason as an overvalued best-ball option here. I highlighted Hooper as a best-ball player to avoid in this piece. The reasons for bypassing each in best-ball formats can also be applied for fading them in traditional season-long leagues. In short, I’m fading them, and you can check out the linked pieces to see more in-depth analysis for both.

Early to Mid-Round Notables

I won’t discuss all of the tight ends who fit under this headline, but there are a few I’ll call attention to. First, Mark Andrews (45.3) is the fourth tight end with a top-50 ADP who I teased in the intro. He finished fifth at the position in PPR per-game scoring (13.8 points) last season.

Out of 41 tight ends targeted at least 30 times in 2019, his 8.69 yards per target ranked ninth. His efficiency is dreamy. Although he ranked fifth among tight ends in targets with 98, he’s closer to the next wave of tight ends behind him than the guys ahead of him. It’s possible the Ravens are forced or opt to throw more this year, and that could aid Andrews’ volume. Having said that, a healthier Marquise Brown could challenge him for the top pass-catching option in Baltimore’s offense in his sophomore campaign. Further, his 10 touchdowns led the position, and he’s likely in store for some regression. His ADP isn’t crazy, but he’ll have to slip a little beyond that in order for me to pull the trigger.

Darren Waller’s (51.7) another tight end I’ve teased a few times already in this piece. He’s just outside the top 50 in ADP, and he’s the third member of the trio of tight ends who eclipsed 100 targets and 9.00 yards per target last season with 117 and 9.79, respectively. Waller enjoyed a breakout season as a matchup nightmare for opponents last year.

Though, it is worth noting his production dipped down the back-stretch. That’s not to say he was bad, but there is a sizable split between his numbers from Week 1 through Week 8 and from Week 9 through Week 17. The following table will illustrate the difference in numbers.

Split Targets/Game Receptions/Game Receiving Yards/Game Touchdowns PPR Fantasy Points/Game
Week 1-8 8.29 6.57 70.86 3 16.3
Week 9-17 6.56 4.88 72.11 0 11.9

For the first eight weeks of the season, Waller’s 16.3 PPR fantasy points per game ranked second among tight ends. His 11.9 PPR fantasy points per game the last nine weeks of the season ranked seventh at the position — after excluding Tommy Sweeney’s meaningless Week 17 showing for the Bills. Waller’s reduced volume from Week 9 through Week 17 coincided with the emergence of rookie slot wideout Hunter Renfrow in the offense. Add in the club’s strange choice to sign veteran tight end Jason Witten and their investment in pass-catching options in this year’s draft, and a reversion back to the gaudy usage in Week 1 through Week 8 last year seems unlikely. Still, a bit more luck in the touchdown department and Waller can be worth his fair current ADP.

After Waller, the next wave of tight ends begins going off the board with Tyler Higbee (75.3). He’s essentially immediately followed off the board by Evan Engram (76.0), Rob Gronkowski (77.0), and Hunter Henry (77.7). Out of that quartet, I like both Higbee and Henry. The latter of those two I discussed as a best-ball target here.

As for Higbee, he thrived after the Rams utilized 12-personnel (one running back, two receivers, and two tight ends) more frequently as the season wore on. Higbee was especially lethal the last five games of the season, eclipsing 100 receiving yards four straight weeks from Week 13 through Week 16 and capping the season off with an 8-84-1 showing on 12 targets in Week 17. From Week 1 through Week 12, the Rams ran 12-personnel only 14% of the time, according to Sharp Football Stats. They ran 12-personnel 34% of the time during Higbee’s heater from Week 13 through Week 17. A five-game sample is small, but it was dynamite and makes Higbee a strong option at his ADP. I have Henry ranked one spot ahead of Higbee, but I view them as a coin-flip decision.

Late-Round Favorites

Hayden Hurst (132.3) is among my favorite late-round targets at any position. I previously wrote about him along with the aforementioned Henry in this linked piece. In traditional season-long formats, I’ll be drafting ample shares of Hurst both as my top tight end and paired with another flyer as well as selecting him as a second tight end behind some of the previously analyzed tight ends touted in this piece. It’s not ideal that he shares a Week 10 bye with Kelce (and Henry, too), but he’s still worth pairing with the stud tight end in the hopes of a breakout in his new home. Their shared bye is late enough in the season you’ll have a chance to evaluate the end of your roster and cut someone for a bye fill-in if Hurst breaks out and is worth continuing to roster. Further, if you hook Hurst with Kelce and the former breaks out, you’ll have valuable trade assets and options to improve your roster through that route.

Mike Gesicki (125.3) stands out as another late-round tight end who piques my interest. His efficiency underwhelms, but he made a sizable leap in production from his rookie to his sophomore campaign. He has jaw-dropping measurables, as you can see in his workout metrics at PlayerProfiler. Perhaps most interesting, though, is his usage last year. Rich Hribar of Sharp Football Analysis noted in a piece he penned recently that Gesicki topped tight ends in percentage of routes run from the slot at 71.1%. Pat Thorman of Establish The Run also recently pointed out Gesicki’s slot usage and added even further context in the following tweet.

That type of usage makes him more of a jumbo wideout than a traditional tight end. I’ll sign up for that.

Streaming Results From 2019

FantasyPros isn’t my only football writing home. I also write for numberFire. At my other writing home last season, I wrote a tight end streaming piece weekly from Week 1 through Week 16 that was submitted Monday nights for Tuesday publish. That recurring weekly piece featuring three tight ends per piece awarded me the unique opportunity to look back at the results of the players I touted to see how they fared.

In order for a tight end to be considered for inclusion in my streaming column, they had to be widely available. The highest-owned tight end I included last year was O.J. Howard with a 41% Yahoo! ownership percentage in Week 16. Howard was also the second-highest owned tight end I touted at 40% in Week 11. Only five other tight ends included last season had an ownership rate above 30%. Many of the tight ends featured were owned on under 20% of Yahoo! rosters at the time of being touted. The ownership percentages offer some context to the pool of streaming talent utilized.

In all, I touted 48 tight ends across 16 weeks last season. Because the article was published on Tuesdays, though, I wasn’t privy to end of the week injury reports when making my streaming selections. As a result, a few of the streaming suggestions ended up ruled out in advance of their games. Three of the players were ruled out (or trending that way) far enough in advance of their contests that I’m opting to exclude them from the data in the following tables.

Two more tight ends were tough-luck inactives who I’ve opted to include in the following data as a result of the circumstances. The first was Dallas Goedert in Week 2. He aggravated an injury in pre-game warmups of the Sunday Night Football game that week. Gamers who turned to him as a streamer were stuck eating a zero and that info belongs in the streaming results. Also, David Njoku was a surprise inactive during the late afternoon slate of games in Week 15, once again likely hanging gamers who turned to him out to dry. So, the following two tables are for a sample of 45 tight ends.

Tight End Finish TE1-6 TE7-12 TE13-18 TE19-24 TE25-36 TE36+
Tight Ends 4 7 6 8 10 10

Nearly a quarter of the tight ends suggested for streaming provided gamers streaming them starting-caliber tight end numbers in 12-team leagues. Having said that, the results are largely pretty ugly.

Tight End Group Targets/Game Receptions/Game Receiving Yards/Game Touchdowns/Game PPR Points/Game (Full-Season TE Rank)
All 4.4 2.87 27.8 0.27 7.15 (TE27)
Bottom 2.88 1.44 12.25 0.06 2.91 (TE57)
Median 4.31 2.62 27.15 0.15 6.25 (TE32)
Top 6.0 4.5 43.88 0.56 12.14 (TE10)

The entire sample of 45 tight end streamers I touted for numberFire last year averaged 7.15 PPR points per game, “good” for a full-season finish among tight ends of TE27. Yuck. If you were an unlucky sap who ended up with my worst streaming suggestion all 16 weeks last year, they collectively averaged under three PPR fantasy points per game. That’s a disastrous outcome. If you ended up at the other end of the spectrum and had the good fortune of streaming the top-scoring option I touted in all 16 weeks last year, they cobbled together a top-10 finish in per-game PPR scoring at 12.14 points per game.

The tight end streaming landscape is a tough one to navigate. In 12-team leagues or larger, I wouldn’t advise punting tight ends with the intention of streaming. In 10-team leagues or shallower, the available talent pool might be large enough to make it viable, though.

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Josh Shepardson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Josh, check out his archive and follow him @BChad50.

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