At What Age Do Tight Ends Decline? (Fantasy Football 2020)
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, and then Noah Fant flirting with top-12 production. Is this a sign of things to come, or are they outliers?
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 13 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 640 individual seasons, which is more than enough of a sample size.
Upside (Top-Three Potential)
Since starting this series four 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.
As you can see, no tight end not named Rob Gronkowski has finished as a top-three tight end prior to their age-25 season. Mark Andrews got extremely close last year, finishing as the No. 4 tight end in half PPR at 24 years old. He’s pretty dang good, especially when you know he saw less than 100 targets. But still, 159 individual seasons from players younger than 25, and not one has finished top-three. To know that Rob Gronkowski did this twice before he turned 25 is ridiculous.
There’s a clear drop-off after the age 30 season, even if the percentages don’t look horrendous. Just 4-of-82 tight ends (4.9 percent) who were 31 or older finished as top-three options. Just two tight ends accounted for those four performances, and both were Hall of Famers (Tony Gonzalez three times, Antonio Gates). It’s sad, but Travis Kelce will be playing in his age-31 season in 2020. Meanwhile, Zach Ertz will be in his age-30 season. If you play in dynasty leagues and aren’t built to compete this year, you should be selling.
TE1 Potential (Top-12)
It’s extremely tough to snake your way into the top-three tight ends, so it’s understandable that the results can be skewed by top-end talent. The issue is that top-12 isn’t tough enough to achieve. Targets are the most important stat when trying to predict TE1 value, so it’s possible this chart will show us which players are most likely to get those targets.
It seems the tier for top-12 production slides up by a year, as 24-year-olds have a 25.4 percent chance of getting into the top-12, while 21-23-year-olds hit the tier just 14.1 percent of the time. A few players who are in that 21-23 range in 2020 are Irv Smith, Noah Fant, and T.J. Hockenson. History says that if even one of them finish top-12, it’d be remarkable. When looking at this chart and the elite one, I’d say a tight end’s prime years are in-between 25 and 30, with some wiggle room on each end.
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 132 tight ends who’ve seen 85-plus targets, and 106 of them finished top-12). Search for targets and don’t expect tight ends under the age of 25 to have a breakout season.