Predicting Elite Tight Ends
By Jeff Tefertiller
July 27th, 2012

It has just been in the past few years that the tight end position has become more involved in passing offenses. We have seen the elite performers at the position outscore many top players at both the running back and wide receiver positions. Fantasy owners everywhere are seeking some predictors of fantasy success for tight ends. Since we are only addressing the "elite" players, this status is reserved for the top six finishers at the position in a given year. We will look at each of the last five years of data and draw conclusions for 2012 at the end.

When pouring through the data, there were two very good predictors of elite fantasy production: a team's passing yards ranking and if the tight end was the team's leading receiver. A Top 10 ranking in passing yards was needed for a top 3 tight end finish and a Top 16 ranking for a Top 5 fantasy finish at the position. There were a couple of outliers to this data, where the team passed poorly and the player was not the team's top receiver, but the numbers speak for themselves. We looked at the team's quarterback fantasy production, but a good fantasy season by the quarterback did not necessarily result in success for the tight end. All of the fantasy data is from Footballguys.com and the Team Passing Yards Rank from Pro-Football-Reference.com. So, let's start by taking a look at last year's numbers.

Tight End
Fpts
Quarterback
QB finish
Team Pass Yds Rk
Top Rec?
Rob Gronkowski
247
Tom Brady
QB3
2nd
No
Jimmy Graham
191
Drew Brees
QB1
1st
No
Aaron Hernandez
138
Tom Brady
QB3
2nd
No
Tony Gonzalez
130
Matt Ryan
QB8
8th
No
Jermichael Finley
125
Aaron Rodgers
QB2
3rd
No
Jason Witten
124
Tony Romo
QB7
7th
Yes

In 2011, the top two tight ends were in a class by themselves. Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were vital to the success of many fantasy teams. Given our two predictors, these results should be expected. Four of the Top 5 tight ends came from the three top passing offenses. How did 2010 compare?

Tight End
Fpts
Quarterback
QB finish
Team Pass Yds Rk
Top Rec?
Jason Witten
154
Tony Romo / Jon Kitna
QB31 / QB26
6th
No
Antonio Gates
138
Philip Rivers
QB5
2nd
Yes
Vernon Davis
133
Alex Smith
QB27
18th
Yes
Marcedes Lewis
130
David Garrard
QB14
27th
No
Rob Gronkowski
115
Tom Brady
QB1
11th
No
Kellen Winslow Jr.
103
Josh Freeman
QB7
17th
No

Tony Romo was hurt early in the season and Jon Kitna outproduced him in the world of fantasy football. But, even the quarterback change did not impact Jason Witten's success. The strong season by Antonio Gates came as the leading receiver in a top passing offense. Marcedes Lewis is one of the two outliers in the study. Wide receiver Mike Thomas was the leading pass catcher for quarterback David Garrard and the team was toward the bottom of the league in passing yards. Still, Lewis was able to accumulate fantasy numbers. One interesting point is how the fantasy numbers jumped in 2011 from 2010 and the predictors of this study held true. This is something to remember as we take a look at the potential elite players for 2012 below. How was 2009 for tight ends?

Tight End
Fpts
Quarterback
QB finish
Team Pass Yds Rk
Top Rec?
Vernon Davis
175
Alex Smith
QB22
22nd
Yes
Dallas Clark
172
Peyton Manning
QB5
2nd
No
Antonio Gates
164
Philip Rivers
QB7
5th
No
Brent Celek
145
Donovan McNabb
QB12
10th
No
Tony Gonzalez
123
Matt Ryan
QB19
14th
No
Visanthe Shiancoe
123
Brett Favre
QB3
8th
No

Vernon Davis is on the list two consecutive years due to his role as the top pass catcher in San Francisco. The rest of the results are what many would have predicted. Dallas Clark and Gates were in prolific offenses. Brent Celek, Tony Gonzalez, and Visanthe Shiancoe produced in above average pass offenses. How about 2008?

Tight End
Fpts
Quarterback
QB finish
Team Pass Yds Rk
Top Rec?
Tony Gonzalez
166
Tyler Thigpen
QB12
20th
Yes
Jason Witten
121
Tony Romo
QB9
9th
No
Dallas Clark
121
Peyton Manning
QB6
5th
No
Antonio Gates
118
Philip Rivers
QB3
7th
No
Visanthe Shiancoe
102
Gus Frerotte
QB29
25th
No
Owen Daniels
98
Matt Schaub
QB21
4th
No

In 2008, Gonzalez racked up the fantasy points after rookie Tyler Thigpen took over the quarterback job. He outproduced the rest at the position by a wide margin. Witten, Clark, Gates, and Daniels all produced as expected, but Shiancoe was an outlier. The quarterback play in Minnesota that year was atrocious, but the big tight end still put up fantasy points. One item to note is the relatively low fantasy point totals by all on the list, sans Gonzalez. For this reason, Shiancoe's point total was not really "elite" compared to other seasons. It was just an off year for tight end production with the exception of Gonzalez. Our last year in the study is 2007. How did it compare?

Tight End
Fpts
Quarterback
QB finish
Team Pass Yds Rk
Top Rec?
Jason Witten
157
Tony Romo
QB2
4th
No
Antonio Gates
152
Philip Rivers
QB15
26th
Yes
Tony Gonzalez
147
Damon Huard
QB24
20th
Yes
Kellen Winslow Jr.
141
Jeff Garcia
QB18
16th
No
Dallas Clark
131
Peyton Manning
QB3
6th
No
Chris Cooley
127
Jason Campbell
QB17
14th
No

The production by Witten and Gates were to be expected. It is remarkable what Gonzalez was able to produce given the poor quarterback play he endured in his last few years as a Chief. The rest of the results are expected.

So we have looked at five years of data, how does that help me for this upcoming season? Well, since we are looking for the top passing teams, we can begin by taking a look at the 2011 numbers even though some may not be able to reproduce last year's statistics. Below are the Top 16 teams according to passing yards with the respective tight end noted:

Rank
Team
Tight End(s)
1
Green Bay Packers
Jermichael Finley
2
New Orleans Saints
Jimmy Graham
3
New England Patriots
Rob Gronkowski / Aaron Hernandez
4
Detroit Lions
Brandon Pettigrew
5
Carolina Panthers
Greg Olsen
6
San Diego Chargers
Antonio Gates
7
Atlanta Falcons
Tony Gonzalez
8
Philadelphia Eagles
Brent Celek
9
New York Giants
Martellus Bennett
10
Houston Texans
Owen Daniels
11
San Francisco 49ers
Vernon Davis
12
Baltimore Ravens
Ed Dickson / Dennis Pitta
13
New York Jets
Dustin Keller
14
Buffalo Bills
Scott Chandler
15
Dallas Cowboys
Jason Witten
16
Oakland Raiders
David Ausberry

Above, we stated that a Top 10 passing ranking was necessary for a Top 3 finish and a Top 16 ranking for a Top 6 fantasy outcome. If we go by 2011 numbers, even knowing one or two may change significantly, several tight ends jump out as fantasy sleepers. Greg Olsen (ADP TE18), with Jeremy Shockey departed, could jump into the fantasy elite status. Cam Newton should improve with a full offseason to help his development. Celek (ADP TE12) and Martellus Bennett (ADP TE22) could also be fantasy factors and neither is drafted very high. In fact, all three of these sleepers are seldom selected in the first ten rounds in redraft leagues. Scott Chandler (No ADP) is another player to watch after he started the 2011 season hot, then was lost to injury. These four tight ends could all make an impact at a very inexpensive price as their respective teams should rank high again in passing yards. One other player to note is Jacob Tamme (ADP TE11). With Peyton Manning now under center in Denver, the Broncos are expected to be on the Top 10 list for passing yards. In deeper, or Survivor leagues, these five players are cheap investments whom could pay big dividends. In fact, if you wait on drafting the tight end position, nabbing two of this group is a very good strategy.

Of the tight ends most likely to lead their team in receiving, Davis, Gates, and Witten have the best chance given the turmoil at the receiver position on each team and their respective relationship with the quarterback.

The tight end position has seen an uptick in fantasy numbers. These two predictors will help you get the most value from the position.

Please feel free to email tefertiller@footballguys.com or tweet Twitter with any questions or comments.

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