Through my 14 completed MFL10 drafts, I’ve taken a tight end before Round 8 in just three of them. I’ve dipped my toes early for a small amount of Greg Olsen and Martellus Bennett exposure, as well as just good old-fashioned portfolio diversity. And while I like those guys, on those particular rosters and in general, I still don’t feel like I’m extracting much value by selecting them. They seem very likely to post Top5 tight end numbers and thus “justify” my pick. But if the gap between (hypothetically) overall TE4 Greg Olsen and TE7 Coby Fleener winds up very small, what will that tiny uptick have cost me on draft day? Ultimately, will I have wished I’d sat tight, spent my fifth- or sixth-round pick on a shallower position, and plucked similar tight end production from Round 10? In other words: Should I have followed my typical Zero-TE strategy? Since I’ve employed that process in the other 11 of my 14 drafts, I obviously recommend it pretty strongly in 2015.
Zero-TE works by avoiding exposure to the tight end position in for roughly the first half of your draft. You won’t be landing the coveted guys; rather, you’ll seek to post solid-to-great weekly tight end lines with a mix-and-match crew cobbled together in the mid-to-late rounds (typically 9-17 or so). Here’s a breakdown of my MFL10 tight end exposure thus far, courtesy of RotoViz’s Best Ball ADP app:
Remember, MFL10s are best-ball leagues; you’re not required to declare weekly starters and limit your roster’s scoreability. You simply bank the production of your best tight end from that week, and if you’ve rostered a handful of options, you have to like your odds of one of them finding the end zone, exploiting an unexpected mismatch against a struggling linebacker, or realizing some other high-scoring scenario. Not to mention, since you’ve selected several promising options, you also have a decent chance of at least one breaking out as a bona fide year-long stud.
In other words, a Zero-TE roster places its eggs into several promising baskets, rather than banking on just one and investing a premium draft pick to do so. And there’s perhaps no better time or place to invest in those middle tiers than in the 2015 tight end crop, where a bevy of mid-round options look poised to score right alongside the guys coming off the board early.
* MFL10 ADPs from start of free agency (March 10) through drafts completed by May 5
You know that Thomas is trading in Denver’s offense for Jacksonville’s, and Peyton Manning for Blake Bortles. But do you grasp all that that entails? Here’s a quick peek at the numbers from within 10 yards for Manning in Denver and for Bortles as a rookie:
|2014 League Avg.||2.55||53.4%||2.4||0.371||89.5|
In verbiage: Thomas, a touchdown-dependent fantasy target, is moving from a juggernaut offense perpetually near the goal line to one that’s allergic to it. He’s also trading in arguably the greatest red zone quarterback in history for a shaky youngster who’s never even produced average numbers there.
Of course, it could be argued that Bortles was so inefficient due to a lack of legitimate receiving targets, and that Thomas could help that. That’s valid, at least theoretically, as Thomas is indeed a tremendously accomplished short-yardage scorer with a higher career touchdown rate than Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham. Still, you need to note that Manning isn’t merely a solid red zone passer – he’s a legendary one. Even if Bortles progresses to league average levels of touchdowns and red zone production, this isn’t the Denver offense; Thomas’ days of 12-TD opportunity are all but certainly over, so we need to adjust our expectations of his upside. Where we used to expect as many as 12 touchdowns, we should probably reassign him something along the lines of 7-9. And in this offense, that looks like a sheer ceiling, not merely an expected upside range. Do you want to put your chips on a Jaguar receiver – any Jaguar receiver – reaching their absolute ceiling in 2015?
All told, to wager heavily – and Round Seven is indeed heavy – on Thomas carrying over his TE1 value to an anemic red zone offense sure seems fuzzy. Add to the mix a few Thomas-specific considerations – his balky ankle, the fact that his non-red zone usage has never been voluminous – and you have an extraordinarily risky TE6 pick. If you’re not as interested in punting at tight end as I am, and you want to target a stud-to-be, you’re probably better served looking elsewhere in this range.
It’s not that I don’t like the manchild. I love the guy. He’s an athletic clone of Rob Gronkowski, and his 2014 efficiency was a sight to behold, featuring a stunning 82.7% catch rate and a yards per route run mark second only to Gronkowski himself. Make no mistake: in reality and in fantasy, I’m Team Kelce. I just think this ADP is high, a natural reaction by the fantasy community to the dearth of proven tight end options. I understand the enthusiasm, but the fact is that drafting Kelce at 46.7 means skimping on premium positions with premium picks. You’ll need to forgo a bevy of attractive contributors at that spot, and it’s hard for me to imagine him outproducing an excellent mid-round tight end crop enough to justify that.
What encourages 2015 Kelce chasers is the fact that Kelce’s usage increased markedly down the 2014 stretch. Managed with kid gloves and utilized as a situational threat early on, Kelce was truly woven into the offense – both phases – over the latter half of the season:
Kelce indeed saw increased opportunity down the stretch, enough even to accommodate TE1 numbers from a talent like this. But in his case, that increased opportunity isn’t just a feather in his cap; it's essential, as there’s not enough of a passing game in Kansas City for him to return value otherwise. Unless Kelce draws the upper ranges of his usage possibilities, he’s unlikely to provide Top 3 tight end value. And added to the mix in 2015 is Jeremy Maclin, Reid’s #1 wideout just three seasons ago and fresh off a career year. Banking a third-round pick on Kelce chases a number of variables, ones that don’t strike me as sexy: Alex Smith throwing more passes, Maclin and his contract being held in decoy mode, the Kansas City offense supporting multiple top-tier fantasy contributors.
It’s perfectly okay to love the player, drool over the upside, yet acknowledge that the stars don’t seem to align just yet. MFL10s are not dynasty formats; they’re redraft contests, and April MFL10s are blind ones at that. Kelce’s future has the look of a brilliant one, but we don’t have to spend top-tier money in assumption those iffy x-factors will break idyllically.
There are many reasons to shy away from Gates in weekly standard leagues. He’s getting up there (35 when the season begins), his snap count fell markedly in 2014 (from 95% to 72% of snaps), and everyone’s favorite tight end phenom Ladarius Green again looms in the shadows. But what hasn’t suffered a bit over the years has been Gates’ red zone usage, which typically sit at mammoth levels. A Hall of Fame talent with remarkable ball skills, Gates has long dominated Philip Rivers’ eye near the goal line. That distinction hasn’t faded with age; since 2013, he’s seen 21 looks come his way from inside the 10 and turned 11 into touchdowns. At this point, it feels safe to expect Gates to retain a healthy red zone share until he plays his final down.
Yes, Gates’ weekly inconsistency makes him a dice roll in weekly leagues. But in a best-ball format, Gates is golden. You won’t need to identify the weeks he’s most likely to find the end zone. Assuming you come away with two more serviceable tight ends, you’ll be in good position to dodge Gates’ disappearing acts while reaping the multi-touchdown explosions. And that advantage is made all the more valuable by Gates’ plummeting ADP. There are some massive question marks coming off the board before him, including a few guys whose reasonable upsides don’t necessarily top Gates’. Fantasy owners should always keep an eye on young, untapped upside, but the shrewd ones will still recognize the value of a weekly touchdown threat available in Round Nine.
I’ll let Keanu Reeves’ fast-talking, poorly-accented attorney from of The Devil’s Advocate summarize my thoughts here:
I don’t like Coby Fleener. I don’t think he’s a good tight end. I don’t expect you to like him. He’s been a mediocre-to-poor on-field tight end for several years, coughing up boneheaded drops and drawing subpar blocking marks across the board. He’s (at least theoretically) drawn a sizeable chunk of Andrew Luck’s focus away from intriguing guys like Dwayne Allen and Donte Moncrief. So I don’t like him. But this isn’t a popularity contest; it’s a statistical contest based on production expectation and value.
Full disclosure: that was paraphrased. Keanu wasn’t actually advocating for Fleener or any tight end. But his point – that personal biases and vendettas have no place in determining guilt in a courtroom – fits so well into this little game of ours. Too often, we fall into one of the following traps:
- We allow our personal feelings toward a player to affect our projections/expectations, thus counterproductively dropping them down our rankings.
- We assume that NFL coaches care as much as we do about advanced analytics and plan their schemes accordingly.
Though I think Fleener is a mediocre slot receiver and little else (and a mistake-prone one at that), I have to accept that those observations – even when backed by advanced metrics and the eyeball test – don’t always play out. They usually do, which is why I rarely target guys like this, but identifying the potential exceptions can bring phenomenal value. And the facts of the case are this: Fleener has improved in nearly every fantasy category each year he’s been in the league, and he’s entrenched in a pass game that makes generous use of 12 (double tight end) sets. The cherry on top – or, it could be argued, the sundae itself – is Luck’s tendency to go tight end-centric in the red zone, a trait that dates back to his time with Fleener at Stanford. As a pro, Luck has sent 29% of his throws from inside the 10 to tight ends, helping Fleener and Allen to a studly 12.8% touchdown rate. The fact that Allen is little more than a package player in the pass game (and oft-injured to boot) only boosts Fleener’s value, which is being seriously underplayed at TE17.
Daniels isn’t a particularly reliable tight end option; he’ll turn 33 this season, and various injuries have cost him 27 of his last 96 games. He hasn’t reached 50 receptions, 500 yards, or five touchdowns since 2012. But his landing spot in Peyton Manning’s offense injects so much theoretical value – pretty much all we can ask for in April – into Daniels’ stock.
You know, of course, that Daniels was Gary Kubiak’s hand-picked tight end in 2006, when the fourth-rounder surprisingly ran with the starting job and posted a very impressive rookie line. Daniels battled injury woes to post three top-eight fantasy seasons in Houston. When Kubiak headed to Baltimore last year, Daniels followed and flashed fantasy utility after Dennis Pitta’s injury. The fact that the two are again reuniting in Denver at least suggests Daniels plays a prominent role in Kubiak’s offensive scheme.
And as a result, borderline TE1 production is a perfectly reasonable expectation for Daniels. Always heavily utilized (if not very productive) near the goal line, Daniels will now be catching soft tosses from Peyton Manning, the most prolific red zone passer in NFL history. And the sheer volume of short-yardage opportunities available in the Denver offense can’t be understated. That upside of 6-8 touchdowns automatically pushes Daniels into fantasy relevance on its own.
In other words, Daniels looks like an extremely shrewd dice roll as the TE20 with real top-eight potential. There are some legitimate reasons Daniels is not currently in the minds of fantasy owners – his age and injury history, the bevy of pass-catching talent in Denver, and the presence of Virgil Green at the tight end spot. But if Daniels is healthy, I’m not too worried about competition for targets. Manning is a relatively tight end-centric passer; in his 16 NFL seasons, he’s had a tight end reach 50 receptions in six of them (38%) and six or more touchdowns in eight (50%). I’m sure he’ll shoehorn either Daniels or Green into the gameplan to at least some noticeable degree. And as for competition between the two, it’s hard not to give Daniels a huge edge in the passing game. He’s started for Kubiak for nine years and was signed on the first day of free agency, while Green has tallied just 23 catches in four years as a blocking specialist.
All in all, Daniels’ concerns are real but already cooked into his price tag. Snag Daniels at this Round 13 ADP and you’re not paying for any of his upside; rather, you’re paying pretty modestly for the rights to it should it materialize.
Like Fleener, I’ve got my reservations about Donnell as a player. He probably qualifies as a “plodding” athlete by the 4.91 40 and ho-hum 34.5-inch vertical from his 2011 Grambling pro day. He produced just 1.21 yards per route in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus, a less efficient total than the likes of Jermaine Gresham. He somehow lost four (yes, four) fumbles, an unheardof achievement on just 63 touches. And as an exceptionally poor run blocker – 64th of 67 tight ends in PFF’s run-blocking metric – he does appear likely to disappear from the field more often than the Giants’ bevy of talented wideouts. (Actually, that’s exactly what happened over the second half of 2014, when his snap rate fell 11% over the final seven games.)
What Donnell does have on his side, if sporadically, is opportunity in the passing game. Only four tight ends ran more routes last year, per PFF. Most importantly, Donnell was a relative touchdown machine in 2014, as his six-TD line didn’t fully encapsulate his scoring expectations and potential. Only two tight ends (Antonio Gates and Charles Clay) saw more targets from inside the 10, and just three (Jimmy Graham, Gates, and Julius Thomas) saw more from inside the five. Donnell’s red zone dominance doesn’t seem fluky, either. He turned just 38 college receptions into 11 touchdowns, and tight ends standing 6’6” and taller have historically posted very impressive touchdown rates in the NFL. Boosting his cause is the fact that, since 2012, only Indianapolis has thrown more touchdowns from inside the 10 then the Giants.