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Which Tight Ends Were Better/Worse Than Expected in 2020? (Fantasy Football)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 22, 2021

What Robert Tonyan did in 2020 is unrepeatable

I’ve said it on our podcast quite a bit: Follow the targets and/or opportunity when it comes to tight ends. Targets mean everything to a tight end’s production. However, there are some targets that are worth more than others. And no, I’m not just talking about which quarterback those targets are coming from.

During the 2020 NFL season, each target to a tight end was worth roughly 1.45 fantasy points in a half PPR format. Breaking it down a bit further, a target between the 20-11-yard line was worth 1.86 fantasy points. But it doesn’t end there, as all red zone targets aren’t the same. Wherever a tight end is targeted, they have an expected fantasy output. Today, we’ll find out who was better than expected with their targets, as well as who underperformed.

In case you missed it, there were articles that went up on running backs, as well as wide receivers who performed above/below expectations during the 2020 season.

Outside the Red Zone

There isn’t one statistic or metric that someone will point to that tells the whole story, so stop trying to find it. There is, however, statistics that will separate the men from the boys over a large sample size. It’s not to say one football season is a big sample size, but we must work with the hand we’re dealt.

Just like the elite players near the top of every list, most bad players end up towards the bottom of lists. If you’re an elite or semi-decent player, you shouldn’t be popping up at the bottom of any list, including this one. On the chart below, you’ll see the difference in how many non-red zone points they scored versus how many they were expected to score, knowing where their targets took place. I’ve narrowed it down to those who saw at least 20 or more targets, which was a total of 58 tight ends in 2020.

The Top-24 Tight Ends Non-Red Zone (Above Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Diff
1  Travis Kelce 40.6
2  Robert Tonyan 38.9
3  Darren Fells 22.6
4  Darren Waller 22.4
5  George Kittle 19.2
6  Mark Andrews 18.4
7  Rob Gronkowski 14.2
8  Richard Rodgers 14.0
9  Dan Arnold 13.9
10  Jared Cook 12.2
11  Mo Alie-Cox 11.9
12  Mike Gesicki 9.7
13  Tyler Higbee 9.0
14  Donald Parham Jr. 7.5
15  Kyle Rudolph 6.8
16  Ross Dwelley 5.9
17  Dallas Goedert 4.4
18  Tyler Conklin 3.5
19  Ryan Izzo 3.4
20  Cameron Brate 3.4
21  Irv Smith Jr. 3.2
22  Jordan Akins 3.1
23  Will Dissly 3.0
24  Hayden Hurst 2.8

 

Both Travis Kelce and Robert Tonyan put up remarkable numbers outside the red zone; like unsustainable numbers. There were just five wide receivers who topped their numbers outside the red zone. If you think that makes sense, understand that wide receivers have much higher big-play upside, while tight ends generally rely on touchdowns just outside the red zone to pump these numbers up. You also want to find a tier break to determine outliers, so considering Kelce and Tonyan are more than 16 fantasy points higher than No. 3 on the list, it’s fair to expect regression.

You can see, the top tight ends in fantasy are right where they should be, at the top of the list. There are a few notable exceptions though, like Darren Fells and Richard Rodgers, who each saw fewer than 32 targets. Despite playing in just eight games and seeing 63 targets, George Kittle scored 19.2 points over expectations, which would extrapolate to Kelce/Tonyan territory over a full season. The biggest takeaway from this section is that Kelce and Tonyan are likely to regress, even if it’s just 15-20 points (they’d still be elite).

The Bottom-24 Tight Ends Non-Red Zone (Below Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Diff
35  Jesse James -3.5
36  Jonnu Smith -3.7
37  Greg Olsen -4.6
38  Kaden Smith -5.2
39  James O’Shaughnessy -5.7
40  Vance McDonald -5.8
41  T.J. Hockenson -6.4
42  Dawson Knox -6.7
43  Jimmy Graham -7.3
44  Nick Vannett -7.9
45  Harrison Bryant -8.2
46  Hunter Henry -9.9
47  Jacob Hollister -10.0
48  Gerald Everett -10.5
49  Ian Thomas -11.6
50  Austin Hooper -11.7
51  Cole Kmet -11.9
52  Eric Ebron -12.3
53  Tyler Eifert -13.4
54  Trey Burton -14.8
55  Jordan Reed -16.8
56  Evan Engram -26.7
57  Logan Thomas -28.6
58  Zach Ertz -31.2

 

Unlike running backs and wide receivers, I haven’t done tight ends in the past, so I can’t say for certain, but my guess would be that Zach Ertz and Evan Engram would’ve been towards the bottom of this list quite often. Both have relied heavily on volume to produce, and this chart highlights just how below average they were in 2020. Just outside the red zone, Ertz should’ve scored 31.2 more fantasy points, which would’ve moved him up 10 spots in the tight end rankings.

Most would be surprised to see Logan Thomas on this list considering he finished as the No. 6 tight end last year, but based on his opportunity, he should’ve finished as The No. 3 tight end, behind only Travis Kelce and Darren Waller. The other names that might shock some people include Eric Ebron, Hunter Henry, and T.J. Hockenson, who all performed below expectations outside of the red zone in 2020.

Inside the Red Zone

This is the research that is volatile year-over-year because it’s heavily weighted by touchdowns, and it’s the reason the average target was worth 2.73 fantasy points instead of the 1.21 points outside the red zone. Again, I’ve broken this part down into targets that were inside the 10-yard line as well, which were worth even more. So instead of using this statistic as one to lean on for projecting future success, use it to see who may regress to the mean in 2021, because after all, touchdowns are the most volatile thing in fantasy football. Similar to the above charts, I’ve broken it down by those who scored much more than expected in the red zone, as well as those who scored much less than expected.

The Top-24 Red Zone Tight Ends (Above Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Diff
1  Robert Tonyan 22.3
2  Jonnu Smith 13.3
3  Logan Thomas 12.6
4  Tyler Higbee 12.5
5  Jared Cook 12.1
6  Travis Kelce 10.9
7  Jordan Reed 9.8
8  Irv Smith Jr. 8.8
9  Jack Doyle 6.8
10  Harrison Bryant 6.5
11  Dan Arnold 6.4
12  Will Dissly 5.3
13  Richard Rodgers 5.1
14  Trey Burton 5.1
15  Darren Fells 3.5
16  Jimmy Graham 2.9
17  Mo Alie-Cox 2.7
18  Chris Herndon 2.6
19  Cameron Brate 2.5
20  T.J. Hockenson 2.3
21  Dallas Goedert 1.8
22  Ian Thomas 1.1
23  Austin Hooper 0.8
24  Adam Shaheen 0.4

 

Well, well, well… look who pops up at the top of the list again. Robert Tonyan scored 22.3 more fantasy points than he was expected to in the red zone alone, while no other tight end posted a number higher than 13.3. Can you understand why regression should not only be expected, but guaranteed? Once we get to the overall numbers (section below), you’ll see just how much opportunity Tonyan had (or didn’t have).

No one else really stood out as surefire regression candidates, as many were grouped together in the 8-13-point range. Jonnu Smith going from Ryan Tannehill to Cam Newton would likely hurt his numbers over expectation, though Mac Jones would be a wildcard. As you can see, Logan Thomas made up for some of his inefficiencies outside the red zone and outscored expectations inside the red zone.

The Bottom-24 Red Zone Tight Ends (Below Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Diff
35  David Njoku -2.3
36  George Kittle -2.6
37  Cole Kmet -2.7
38  Mike Gesicki -2.8
39  Dawson Knox -2.9
40  Dalton Schultz -3.0
41  Ryan Izzo -3.4
42  Donald Parham Jr. -3.6
43  Vance McDonald -3.8
44  Gerald Everett -4.2
45  Tyler Eifert -4.8
46  Rob Gronkowski -5.2
47  Kyle Rudolph -6.1
48  Noah Fant -6.4
49  Eric Ebron -6.8
50  Anthony Firkser -7.1
51  Mark Andrews -8.2
52  Hunter Henry -8.9
53  Jordan Akins -10.5
54  Zach Ertz -10.7
55  Greg Olsen -11.2
56  Hayden Hurst -11.9
57  Evan Engram -14.7
58  Drew Sample -16.8

 

These are some players who might be considered buy lows entering the 2021 season after they failed to meet expectations in the red zone last year. The name that stands out the most is Mark Andrews, who’s scored at a much higher clip than expected in years past, but scored 8.2 fewer fantasy points than he should’ve inside the red zone during the 2020 season.

There wasn’t too much difference in those who underperformed in the red zone, as there were just six players who scored 10-plus fantasy points fewer than they were expected to, with Drew Sample being the only one who was worse than 14.7 points. There’s been a Bengals player at/near the bottom of the list in each of the positions so far, which likely means the offensive scheme just isn’t working.

Overall (All Targets Combined)

Here’s the combined list of both red zone and non-red zone target differences with each receiver. Remember, this is based on what the average tight end would’ve done with the exact same targets.

The Top-24 Overall Tight Ends (Above Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Diff RZ Diff Total Diff
1  Robert Tonyan 38.9 22.3 61.2
2  Travis Kelce 40.6 10.9 51.5
3  Darren Fells 22.6 3.5 26.1
4  Jared Cook 12.2 12.1 24.3
5  Tyler Higbee 9.0 12.5 21.4
6  Dan Arnold 13.9 6.4 20.3
7  Darren Waller 22.4 -2.1 20.3
8  Richard Rodgers 14.0 5.1 19.1
9  George Kittle 19.2 -2.6 16.6
10  Mo Alie-Cox 11.9 2.7 14.6
11  Irv Smith Jr. 3.2 8.8 12.1
12  Mark Andrews 18.4 -8.2 10.2
13  Jonnu Smith -3.7 13.3 9.6
14  Rob Gronkowski 14.2 -5.2 9.0
15  Will Dissly 3.0 5.3 8.3
16  Mike Gesicki 9.7 -2.8 6.9
17  Dallas Goedert 4.4 1.8 6.2
18  Ross Dwelley 5.9 0.0 5.9
19  Cameron Brate 3.4 2.5 5.8
20  Jack Doyle -2.0 6.8 4.8
21  Donald Parham 7.5 -3.6 3.9
22  Tyler Conklin 3.5 0.0 3.5
23  Kyle Rudolph 6.8 -6.1 0.7
24  Durham Smythe 2.7 -2.1 0.6

 

Remember how we talked about regression for Robert Tonyan earlier? Well, I don’t know if many realize just how unrepeatable his 2020 season was. He scored 61.2 more fantasy points than his opportunity called for… on 59 targets. That means he scored 1.04 more fantasy points per target than he was expected to. Based on the opportunity he had, he should’ve finished as the No. 18 tight end last year, and not the No. 3 tight end that he did. There was no other tight end who finished more than six spots higher than their opportunity. Him finishing as the TE12 last year would’ve been a major accomplishment. Him finishing at TE3 was an outlier.

Travis Kelce is a stud, plain and simple, but doubling every tight end not named Tonyan? Probably not going to happen again. Is Jared Cook better than we think, or was it just a fluke? Whatever the case he should’ve finished outside the top-20 tight ends based on the opportunity he received. The name that stands out here is Jonnu Smith, who was actually slightly worse than expected outside of the red zone, the only one inside the top-18 tight ends to say that. It wasn’t a big number (-3.7), but still.

The Bottom-24 Overall Tight Ends (Below Expected)

Rank Player NonRZ Diff RZ Diff Total Diff
35  Dalton Schultz -2.9 -3.0 -6.0
36  James O’Shaughnessy -5.7 -0.7 -6.4
37  Jordan Reed -16.8 9.8 -7.0
38  Jordan Akins 3.1 -10.5 -7.5
39  Nick Vannett -7.9 0.0 -8.0
40  Noah Fant -2.5 -6.4 -8.9
41  Hayden Hurst 2.8 -11.9 -9.1
42  Anthony Firkser -2.0 -7.1 -9.1
43  Dawson Knox -6.7 -2.9 -9.6
44  Vance McDonald -5.8 -3.8 -9.6
45  Trey Burton -14.8 5.1 -9.7
46  Jacob Hollister -10.0 0.3 -9.7
47  Ian Thomas -11.6 1.1 -10.5
48  Austin Hooper -11.7 0.8 -10.9
49  Cole Kmet -11.9 -2.7 -14.6
50  Gerald Everett -10.5 -4.2 -14.7
51  Greg Olsen -4.6 -11.2 -15.9
52  Logan Thomas -28.6 12.6 -16.0
53  Drew Sample -1.3 -16.8 -18.2
54  Tyler Eifert -13.4 -4.8 -18.2
55  Hunter Henry -9.9 -8.9 -18.7
56  Eric Ebron -12.3 -6.8 -19.1
57  Evan Engram -26.7 -14.7 -41.4
58  Zach Ertz -31.2 -10.7 -41.9

 

Here’s the group of underachievers, with Zach Ertz and Evan Engram leading the way by a mile. Based on how many targets Engram saw in 2020, as well as where they took place, he scored 41.4 fewer fantasy points than he was expected to. Had he simply been average with them, he would’ve finished as the TE5 last year, and not the TE16 where he did. The Giants added a lot of talent around him this offseason, which means he’s going to lose opportunity. Unless he magically performs above expectations in 2021, he’s going to be a disappointing fantasy asset.

Hunter Henry is a name that might surprise some, though he’s always seemed to live off volume. He finished as the TE13 rather than the TE6 where he should’ve in 2020. Now going to the Patriots where he’ll play second fiddle to Jonnu Smith, you shouldn’t expect him to be very fantasy relevant.

Key Takeaways

We should follow the targets more than anything when it comes to tight ends, as we’ve found out that not many outperform/underperform expectations to a great degree. There are certainly some who can do more with less volume, but you shouldn’t bet on them accomplishing that year-over-year unless they’ve proven they’re capable.

  • Robert Tonyan is going to regress… a lot. Even if he finished as the TE12 last year, it would’ve been a massive jump based on opportunity. Instead, he jumped to TE3.
  • Travis Kelce not only saw elite volume, but he produced elite results on the volume he saw.
  • Logan Thomas should’ve been much better with the volume he received.
  • Take away Evan Engram‘s elite volume and you’re going to be very disappointed with the results. The same can be said for Hunter Henry and Zach Ertz.
  • Darren Fells might be good?
  • Mark Andrews had some bad touchdown luck in 2020. Buy.


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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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