At What Age Do Tight Ends Decline? (2021 Fantasy Football)
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 14 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 689 individual seasons, which is more than enough of a sample size.
Upside (Top-Three Potential)
Since starting this series five 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’s 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.
You can now see why fantasy managers have avoided young tight ends, right? Of the 171 seasons by tight ends from age 21 through age 24, none of them finished as a top-three tight end. Do you see the issue with spending the No. 4 pick on Kyle Pitts may not be a winning strategy? Can he be the first tight end since Gronkowski to break these numbers? Sure, but by drafting him there, he needs to be. Some players who aren’t quite hitting that age-25 threshold include Cole Kmet (22), Irv Smith (23), T.J. Hockenson (24), and Noah Fant (24). Players who are entering their prime ages include Mark Andrews (26), Jonnu Smith (26), Dallas Goedert (26), and Mike Gesicki (26).
There’s a clear drop-off after the age-30 season, even if the percentages don’t look horrendous. Just 5-of-94 tight ends who were 31 or older finished as top-three tight ends. Even worse, just three tight ends accounted for those five seasons. Travis Kelce did it last year during his age-31 season, Antonio Gates did it once, and Tony Gonzalez did it three times. It’s fair to say that Kelce is more in line with Tony Gonzalez than he is the normal tight ends, so he could have another two years of elite production, but he’s getting closer to the end. In this article last year, I warned you to sell Zach Ertz, whose value has tanked. The players who are entering the dark stages of their upside ages include Logan Thomas (30), Ertz (31), Kelce (32), Gronkowski (32), Kyle Rudolph (32), Jared Cook (34), and Jimmy Graham (35).
TE1 Potential (Top-12 Upside)
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 23.0 percent chance of getting into the top-12, while 21- to 23-year-olds hit that tier just 13.4 percent of the time. A few players who are in that 21-23 range in 2020 are Kyle Pitts, Cole Kmet, and Irv Smith. History says that if even one of them finish top-12, it’d be outside the norm. When looking at this chart and the elite one, I’d say a tight end’s prime years are in-between 25 and 32, 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, and that it’s unrealistic to expect much out of them before that.
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 81 percent chance that he’s going to finish as a top-12 tight end, regardless of age (Since 2009, there have been 143 tight ends who’ve seen 85-plus targets, and 116 of them finished top-12). Search for targets and don’t expect tight ends under the age of 25 to have a truly elite season.