The Gut Check No. 253: Strange Sanctuaries Series: TE Kellen Davis
By Matt Waldman
July 24th, 2012

There's no such thing as a "safe play" in fantasy football. There are only degrees of perceived safety. Tom Brady was perhaps the safest play in fantasy football four years ago at least before Bernard Pollard made quick work of the Pats quarterback's ACL in Week One of the 2008 season. Adrian Peterson has been regarded as the safest play of the elite fantasy running backs as far back as 2008. One could argue this past label has earned him credit among fantasy owners that the collateral might not support.

This is all semantics we all want to know whom are the safer plays heading into a football season. It's easy to name the top three to five players at each position and call it a wrap. But who are the guys that might be safer than most fantasy owners expect? Individuals that seem like counterintuitive choices at first, but with a deeper look might offer a sanctuary from risk in what many will see as the strangest of places.

The current rage for those seeking a strategic edge in fantasy drafts is to target an elite tight end early in fantasy drafts. I'm not talking about Joe Bryant's VBD articles that I read over a decade ago that illustrated the value of Tony Gonzalez as a fourth-round pick. Bryant's work still stands the test of time, but I'm talking about those fantasy owners that are taking the risk of drafting Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham before the fourth round possibly as high as the end of the first round in tight-end friendly, points per reception leagues.

According to Fantasy Calculator, Graham and Gronkowski are going at 2.01 and 2.06, respectively. The concern among some fantasy owners is whether Gronkowski or Graham getting drafted in the first 2-3 rounds will inflate the rest of the tight end prospects' draft position. Yet, Fantasy Calculator's average draft data indicates that Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis are going 4.09 and 5.06, which means that the answer is a resounding "no."

However, we all know that ADP and the reality of a league draft are often much different. Fantasy owners can become impulse buyers in a draft setting and in some leagues the early choices of Graham and Gronkowski could spark a run of tight ends or spur a mindset where tight end values become inflated. Most leagues aren't likely to see teams take Gates, Davis, and Jermichael Finley in the second round because of the early selection of the consensus top-two at the position. Yet, the potential for seven of the best-known options to leave the board before the end of the fifth round is standard fare.

Tight Ends Drafted Early in Fantasy Leagues

Year
No. by 5th Rnd
No. by 6th Rnd
Earliest Rnd
2007
1
5
3 (1)
2008
4
6
4 (1)
2009
4
5
4 (2)
2010
5
7
4 (3)
2011
5
7
4 (3)
2012*
3
7
2 (2)

The data is from Fantasy Football Calculator for 12-team leagues and the number in parenthesis in the last column of the table is the number of players drafted in that earliest round. The 2012 data is ADP based on mock drafts thus far. Based on this information, the importance of tight ends in the eyes of fantasy owners has risen in the past five years to mimic the position's importance in the NFL.

However, what we're seeing this year is that despite two tight ends leaving draft boards in half the time of previous seasons, the number taken by the fifth round has decreased. I believe this has to do with fantasy owners believing they can wait for decent value until the sixth round. The ADP of Gates, Davis, and Finley indicate they are correct. However, by the end of the sixth round, two more tight ends are generally off the board and that constitutes the players that are most fantasy owners believe are likely to produce at a consistent starter level.

What If?

Since the "cutting edge" trend is to take a tight end early and the conservative trend is to wait for value in the 4th-6th round, what is the high-risk, high-reward play for tight ends this year? Fred Davis, Jacob Tamme, and Brandon Pettigrew all have the quarterback and potential to do more, but are they really a high-risk value in the eight round?

If you think Sushi is daring food nowadays then, yes. If you realize that your local grocery store sells as much of it as canned corn, then not so much. Let's get a little more daring, shall we? And I don't mean Tony Gonzalez in the 10th round, Dallas Clark in the 13th, or Greg Olsen in the 14th. They're all good value with proven skill and I can see the case for Olsen, especially.

However, let's look at a player that most will see as a huge risk, but I think could be safer and as productive as any player I mentioned in the past two paragraphs: James Casey.

Psych!

In addition to Casey being a potential surprise, I have to give the strange sanctuary honor to Chicago Bears tight end Kellen Davis.

Yes, I realize that Marshawn Lynch led off this series and he's likely to facing suspension. I write columns that explore risk. If you're seeking a chance to win and the knowing nod of approval from your friends before the season starts, read elsewhere.

However, if the only goal is winning a championship, anything else is failure.

Runner up? Failure.
Best record? Failure.
Most points? Failure.

There's no difference between undefeated and 0-13 in fantasy leagues if your only satisfactory goal is a championship. I'm not telling you this is the right way to look at fantasy leagues. I like achieving these other things. However, it's not my primary goal anymore. I don't care if I fail spectacularly if I'm pursing a chance to win in a legendary way. Dare to be great because if you're not prepared to be wrong you'll never come up with anything original.

That said if you're seeking a chance to dominate later at the initial price of looking foolish and perhaps failing spectacularly, keep reading.

Yes, Kellen Davis

The Bears tight end isn't even on Fantasy Calculator's ADP report in 12-team leagues. He's generally available after the 15th round because he has never produced as a fantasy starter for the span of an NFL season. How does this actually make Davis a safe play?

Davis was my second-ranked tight end prospect for the 2008 Rookie Scouting Portfolio behind Fred Davis and ahead of Dustin Keller. Here's my take on Davis back then:

Davis has the body of a prototype tight end and the athleticism to be an elite player at the position. He adjusts well to the ball and has a quick enough first step to be an effective situational edge rusher for the Spartans. Davis has the best combo of skills to develop into the top TE in this class 2-3 years from now.

Davis is regarded as a raw prospect that might actually be switched to defensive end because he was a situational edge rusher for the Spartans. I watched him play both positions and while he demonstrated a good first step and the ability to get to the passer on defense, I think his hands, footwork, body control, and ability to release off the line make him a potential Pro Bowl tight end. This is the one player at this position I would draft in the mid-to-late rounds and hold onto for a couple of years in a dynasty league.

The more I look back at my assessment of Davis and watch him play in Chicago, the more his style resembles Rob Gronkowski. Note, I'm talking about style rather than talent. Gronkowski is more talented, but Davis does have enough physical skill and athleticism to stretch the seam, break tackles, and adjust to the football in coverage. He's just not at the level of game-breaking ability as an athlete of the Patriots tight end. That said, I still see Pro Bowl potential if the Bears scheme gives the tight end as much of an opportunity as promised.

Davis' only glaring issue entering the league was that he was considered a knucklehead in the maturity department. However, he worked his way into a trusted position with the Bears with his contributions on special teams and as a run blocker. His potential as a receiver hasn't been maximized in Chicago, which I'll explain.

Mike Tice and the liberalization of the Eastern Bloc of Tight End Play

The Bears new offensive coordinator should be a huge reason why Kellen Davis will be a surprising, but safe selection at the end of fantasy drafts. Tice was a prominent part of the Vikings coaching staff during the Denny Green era. You remember, don't you? Daunte Culpepper. Randy Moss. Cris Carter. They all played under Green and did pretty well for fantasy owners at the turn of this century.

Tice took over for Green as the head coach and, according to current Lions coordinator Scott Linehan, who was the offensive coordinator for Tice during the much-scrutinized, "Randy Ratio" era; Tice had a lot of input. A disciple of the Don Coryell style of offense that made Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler, and John Jefferson studs from an earlier era, Tice knows his stuff. The former Vikings tight end also used the position of his youth productively in the passing game.

Considering that Moss and Carter were still around for much of his tenure in Minnesota, this is a nugget worth tucking away.

Vikings Tight End Production Under Mike Tice

Year
Tight End
Rec
Yds
TDs
Rank
2005
Jermaine Wiggins
69
568
1
18
2004
Jermaine Wiggins
71
705
4
8
2003
Jim Kleinsasser
46
401
4
10
2002
Byron Chamberlain
34
389
0
25
2002
Jim Kleinsasser
37
393
1
21
2001
Byron Chamberlain
57
666
3
7

The only two non-fantasy starter seasons for the Vikings starting tight ends came in 2002 when Chamberlain only played 13 games and 2005. However, in 2002 Chamberlain and Kleinsasser combined for production that equated to the No.12 fantasy tight end during that season in non-PPR formats. In 2005, Wiggins lack of touchdowns depressed his value in non-PPR leagues because he was fourth among tight ends in receptions and in the top 12 in receiving yards.

Think about Tice's past history with the tight end position and consider the Bears offense. Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte are the two best receivers on this squad. Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett, and Devin Hester all have promise, but all three are expected to see limited time for several reasons:

  • Jeffery is a rookie and word is he'll be used often in the slot.
  • Bennett is primarily a slot player, which means he'll share time with Jeffery.
  • Hester's role is expected to decline.
  • That last point is something the Bears mentioned to the media weeks after Mike Tice said that if Hester doesn't have his most productive season, the Bears should fire Tice. The reason the statements don't conflict is that Tice believes he can use Hester in more optimal ways despite limiting his targets. Jeffery has the talent to start outside. The way I see it, these three receivers are likely to play a variety of roles until one performs well enough to solidify his role as the slot guy or outside threat.

    However it is chopped up, one thing that the Bears have mentioned repeatedly is that they will emphasize the tight end in the passing game. Don't forget, the last offensive coordinator in Chicago was Mike Martz, who is affectionately known among NFL tight ends as the "Berlin Wall." Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth combined for 25 receptions, 256 yards, and 7 touchdowns last year. Davis accounted for 18-206-5 of that production alone.

    Touchdown-to-Target Ratio

    Davis had 34 targets and 5 touchdowns in 2011, which is a great scoring-to-opportunity ratio. It wasn't the first time Davis has delivered this kind of promising data. In 2009, Davis had 14 targets and scored 3 touchdowns. Tall, strong, fluid, and sure-handed, Davis has been a favorite of Jay Cutler's despite the duo having to circumvent the barbed wire in Martz's passing game philosophy for tight ends.

    This small sample size doesn't provide any statistical value for this blistering scoring rate to continue as Davis receives more targets. But it is an indicator that the fifth-year tight end has skill. It also demonstrates he has the trust of a quarterback capable of prolific production in the right system.

    Davis has told reporters he expects to have at least 40-60 receptions this year. Based on Tice's track record in Minnesota, that's a realistic expectation. If Davis has 50 catches at a 10 yard-per-catch average and only matches his 5-touchdown total from 2011, that total places him at 80 fantasy points and 20th among fantasy tight ends based on last year's production.

    This doesn't sound valuable, but if Davis improves his touchdown total from five to eight and maintains that same reception-reception yardage production, his total of 98 fantasy points places him in the top-12 fantasy tight ends in any year between 2008-2011. I think the bump in receptions and touchdowns that I'm projecting for Davis is a conservative estimate, which means there's a good chance fantasy owners can get a fantasy starter at the cost of an end-of-the-draft selection.

    Rather than spending a pick in the 5th-8th round on a tight end that at best, produces as expected and robs a fantasy owner of the opportunity to land starters at running back, wide receiver, or quarterback that often exceed expectations, Davis, strangely enough, represents a safe, low-investment bet.

    As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to waldman@footballguys.com.

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