When Owen Daniels was drafted in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft, hardly anyone took notice. Houston was a bad team, Daniels played a relatively unimportant fantasy position, and 4th rounders are typically all long shots, anyway. When Daniels caught 34 passes for 352 yards and 5 touchdowns as a rookie, it barely moved the fantasy needle. At the time, Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey, Todd Heap, Chris Cooley, and Kellen Winslow Jr. were all proven performers age 27 or younger, (some much younger). There was plenty of older talent, as well; Alge Crumpler was 30, but coming off of four straight pro bowls. Tony Gonzalez was 31, but already arguably the greatest to ever play and coming off of eight straight pro bowls. Dallas Clark was a former 1st round draft pick who was starting to show flashes of success in an elite offense. Randy McMichael had yet to make a pro bowl, but had begun his career with five straight top-12 fantasy finishes. Much more highly-drafted players such as Ben Watson, L.J. Smith, and Heath Miller all seemed to be on the rise. The 2007 NFL draft produced another pair of touted prospects in Greg Olsen and Zach Miller, both of whom went in the first 40 picks. Looming over all of them was Vernon Davis, who had tied Winslow as the highest-drafted TE since Riley Odoms in 1972 after one of the most impressive combine performances by any player at any position in history. To say that Owen Daniels was an afterthought heading into 2007 overstates the case. It would probably be more accurate to say that Owen Daniels was the guy owners thought of after they were done thinking of all the afterthoughts. Daniels was drafted after all of the aforementioned players except for the rookie Zach Miller. Even Donald Lee, a journeyman who had 664 yards and 4 touchdowns in his four seasons combined, had inexplicably been dubbed the next big sleeper and was getting drafted before Daniels.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see just how wrong everyone was about Daniels. A compelling case could be made that, over the last six years, Daniels has performed comparably to Kellen Winslow Jr. and Vernon Davis (the two tight ends taken with top-10 selections in the NFL draft), and was more valuable than any other tight end except for Gonzalez, Gates, Witten, or Clark. Daniels finished 8th and 6th in 2007 and 2008, and in 2009 was the #1 overall tight end in a very strong crop before suffering a season-ending injury at midseason. After a pair of mediocre and injury-marred seasons in 2010 and 2011, fantasy owners again began to write off Owen Daniels, and he fell to the 15th tight end selected in 2012 fantasy drafts. Of course, he responded with perhaps the best season of his career, making his second career pro bowl and finishing as the 8th best tight end despite missing a game. It's fairly safe to say that Daniels has made a career out of defying expectations.
Heading into the 2013 season, Daniels currently is being drafted as the 12th tight end off the board, where his proven track record seems like a phenomenal reward for whoever waits at the position in their fantasy drafts. Is the community once again falling into the trap of underestimating Owen Daniels? Or is this time really different?
Daniels' rise to prominence coincided with Houston's rise to respectability. From 2002 to 2006, the Texans could never gain any traction, and averaged just 4.8 wins and 260.8 points per season. Head coach Gary Kubiak was hired in 2006 and quickly worked to import the offensive scheme he had learned from his days in Denver. Gary Kubiak's offense was built on an unwavering commitment to zone running principles and relied heavily on moving the quarterback around to attack certain sides of the field. Most importantly for Daniels, the offense had a history of heavily featuring the tight end, who is the primary read on most bootleg or rollout plays, as well as a top option off of play action even when the quarterback remains in the pocket. The offense had an impact in 2006, as Daniels' rookie efficiency numbers and 3rd-down workload demonstrated, but didn't really take off until Houston traded for an NFL-caliber signal caller in Matt Schaub prior to the 2007 season. Once the linemen had a year's experience transitioning to the new blocking scheme, and once the front office had managed to assemble enough talent across the rest of the roster that fit the scheme, Houston's offense took off like a rocket; over the last six seasons, Houston has scored 386.7 points per year. It's no coincidence that Owen Daniels' breakout sophomore season coincided perfectly with Houston finally getting its new, suddenly-potent offensive attack up and running.
This really highlights what Owen Daniels is, and what he is not. He's not a transcendent talent like Gonzalez, Vernon Davis, Kellen Winslow, or Antonio Gates. He might not even be as talented as a Heath Miller or a Greg Olsen. He's not the kind of player who can excel in any scheme, carry a team, or shine in an otherwise putrid offense. Owen Daniels is a good player who found himself a great fit in a specific scheme, and he's capable of putting up strong numbers in the context of the offense as a whole. He's benefited from spending his entire career playing for a TE-friendly coach in a quality offense that has spent the past decade desperately searching for a second option in the passing game behind the great Andre Johnson. And there's the rub- in order for Owen Daniels to remain a quality fantasy option, he needs to have several things continue to go his way. He needs to maintain his level of play while on the wrong side of age 30, which has historically been difficult for tight ends. He needs to hope that Houston can maintain its offensive production despite a steady erosion of talent along the offensive line over the past two years. He needs to hope that he can remain the second option in the passing game despite the addition of highly-touted rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins. He needs to hope that Matt Schaub stays healthy, (something he's struggled with in the past), and that the early signs of decline Schaub showed last season were a fluke and not the beginning of a trend.
As you can see, Owen Daniels has a lot of things that could go wrong for him this year, and any one of them could sink his fantasy value and cause him to perform as a fantasy backup. The good news is that there tend to be plenty of decent options on the waiver wire during the season, so the downside risk if Owen Daniels' busts as the 12th TE off the board is pretty minimal. At the same time, Daniels' doesn't have great upside even if everything goes right. Last year's six touchdowns were a career high, as Houston has always preferred to rely on its running game in the red zone. He's only once topped 800 receiving yards, way back in 2008. Last year was the first time Daniels topped 100 fantasy points in non-PPR scoring systems. Early in his career, 100 fantasy points was a great season from a tight end- from 2006 to 2008, an average of just 6 tight ends reached that mark per year. Tight end production is up across the league since then, though, and 100 points simply doesn't cut it anymore. From 2009 to 2012, an average of 10 tight ends per season have reached triple digits, including eleven in each of the past two seasons. The second best season of Daniels' career was 98 points, a total which would have tied him with the disappointing Antonio Gates for 12th last year. Owen Daniels had an amazing 8-game stretch to open the 2009 season, but at this point, that stretch is a distant memory. Instead, we're left with a guy whose career averages work out to 61 receptions for 730 yards and 4 touchdowns in a season, playing in an era where a 61/730/4 stat line simply doesn't cut it anymore.
- Owen Daniels has a long track record of production, finishing as a top-8 tight end in three of his last five full seasons and putting up a remarkable 8-game start in a sixth.
- Daniels plays in a proven tight end-friendly offense with a history of success. He returns most of the same supporting cast that has surrounded him his entire career.
- Daniels is very cheap, being drafted on average as the 12th tight end off the board.
- Daniels is a complementary talent and his production is very dependent on a number of factors continuing to break in his favor.
- Houston's entire offensive core has been together for nearly half a decade now, and is starting to show signs of aging.
- Daniels doesn't offer much in the way of upside- even at his best, he's a guy who'll keep you from getting killed at the tight end position, rather than a guy who will provide you with an advantage.
Owners who wait on a tight end might be thrilled to find Owen Daniels waiting for them after everyone else has already grabbed a starter, but there's a reason he's lasting as long as he is. Daniels simply does not offer great upside for the risk he carries. If you're planning on using a tight end by committee approach, Daniels can be a proven and comfortable anchor to mitigate the downside if your favorite sleepers fail to wake up. If you're looking for someone who can provide you with an advantage over your league mates rather than someone who can help mitigate any disadvantages, look elsewhere.
Owen Daniels Projections
The staff at BeforeItsNews.com profiles Daniels for the 2013 season
Last year was perhaps the best we've seen from Owen Daniels since his breakout 2009 season was cut short due to a knee injury. With the addition of DeAndre Hopkins in the draft, expect Matt Schaub to spread the football around a little more and I'm not sure Daniels will surpass 60 receptions...
Going as the 10th tight end off the board in the 10th round of 12-team drafts, I suggest you wait a little longer to take him. At the very least you shouldn't take him any higher than that area of the draft, because we have a deep class of tight ends this year that have legitimate odds of matching or beating Daniels production.
Poster FF Ninja speculates about Daniels' season on the Footballguys message boards
I wouldn't get too excited about [James Casey leaving]. Casey played fullback last year and only saw 45 targets...
It is worth noting that Daniels really fell off as the season wore on, seeing his YPR slip from 12.9 to 9.5 and only catching 1 TD in the second half. I don't recall if there was injury that caused this (his number did drop after he missed week 10). Maybe we should be worried about him next year or maybe he'll be healthy and approach 13 YPR again. Makes his projection pretty difficult. Had he played a full 16 games, he'd have likely ended up around 66/764/6. I think he'll be close to that in 2013 if not a bit better if healthy.
More from Adam Harstad:
Lies, Damned Lies, and Big Receivers - April 8
It's Not the Size, (It's How You Use It) - March 4
The Wrong Way to Build a Dynasty - February 11
History, According to the Victors - February 4
Dynasty, in Theory: Creeping Determinism - December 27
Dynasty, in Theory: Wishing You Success - December 20
Dynasty, in Practice: Besieged by Second Thoughts - December 20
Dynasty, in Theory: The Collusion Delusion - December 13
Dynasty, in Practice: Balance Uber Alles - December 13
Dynasty, in Practice: Making Tanking Obsolete - December 6