What makes a tight end a consistent fantasy producer? Is it his hands? His height and weight? His speed? His route running? HIs skill after the catch? This article is a list of the most consistent, high-performing fantasy tight ends since 2007.
Consistency can be measured a number of ways. Some use standard deviation. I prefer creating tiers based on the average value of fantasy production (fantasy points per game). Tiers don't punish players for production well above their average the way that standard deviation can.
My consistency tiers based on the span of seasons measured in a 12-team league:
- Elite: Weekly performances that meet or exceed the average fantasy points per game of the top two overall tight ends.
- No. 1 TE: Weekly performances that meet the average fantasy points per game of top 12 tight ends.
- No. 2 TE: Same as above for 13th-24th tight ends.
- Sub Par: Weekly performances that are below the average baseline of the lowest-ranked starter spot in a league.
In this article, I'm measuring tight ends in 12-team PPR leagues that field one starter. It means the No.1 TE tier spans the averages of the top-12 tight ends, the No. 2 TE tier spans receivers in the range of 13-24, and is the beginning of the Sub-par Tier.
The averages at the bottom of the table below are the fantasy points that define each tier.
BASELINE PPR FANTASY POINT AVERAGES BY Tight End TIER TYPE (2007-2016)
Here's the quickest way to think of this information:
- The Elite tier measures the percentage of a wide receiver's games between 2007-16 where he scored at least 16.6 fantasy points.
- The #1TE Tier measures the percentage of a wide receiver's games between 2007-16 where he scored between 9.2-16.59 fantasy points.
- The #2TE Tier range is between 6.1-9.19 fantasy points.
- The subpar tier measures the percentage of a tight end's games between 2007-16 where he scored less than 9.2 fantasy points.
The players below are sorted by the following priority:
- The lowest percentage of subpar games.
- The highest percentage of No.1 games.
- The highest percentage of Elite games.
"Max" and "Min" are the highest and lowest fantasy performances during their decade of play.
TOP 24 HIGH-PERFORMING FANTASY Tight ends (2007-2016, PPR, NO MINIMUM GAME REQUIREMENT)
The best running backs of a generation often have productive careers as fantasy starters that span 8-12 years and often have a higher percentage of No. 1 and Elite performances than wide receivers. However, most fantasy leagues can start 3-5 receivers versus 1-3 backs.
The lineup numbers and consistency of performance of the non-RB positions are two big reasons why I began writing and using the Upside Down Draft Strategy. It's also why I encourage dynasty owners to begin building teams around elite quarterbacks, elite tight ends, and top-tier receivers. If during the building process, they're not fortunate enough to unearth a top running back without paying a premium through a trade, they can make the RB1 a priority once the rest of the squad is in place.
The elite tight end is a fine cornerstone for a dynasty roster. Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, and Antonio Gates all have logged over 100 games and their No.1 Tier percentage is above 60 percent. Rob Gronowski, Jimmy Graham, Jordan Reed, and Travis Kelce don't have quite the track record, but they've established themselves as this wave's elite options with at least 60 percent of their games in the No. 1 Tier and at least 4 seasons of work.
That 60 percent rate appears to be a good baseline for separating a consistent top 3-5 performer from those whose ceilings are more often in the middle to bottom half of the TE1 tier.
What these players have in common in their prime is skill after the catch and the ability to be split wide of the formation and stretch the deep seam. Most of them are also rebounders who win targets against tight coverage. Unfortunately, it's easy to be too enthusiastic about young tight ends and over project their potential as future elite performers (see Eric Ebron and Zach Ertz).
Even Greg Olsen, Tyler Eifert, and Julius Thomas—players (at least at one time) considered a tier above Ertz and Ebron—only perform at a TE1 rate around 50 percent of the time. If fantasy leagues started as many tight ends as wide receivers that rate would be a positive. However, that 50 percent figure isn't ideal if you're seeking that advantage that Joe Bryant has long underscored through Value Based Drafting.
It's why I often recommend tight end and quarterback as the positions worth paying a premium for a young player in his prime if you can't unearth one in dynasty drafts after a couple of attempts, especially when it's easier to earn strong production early from rookie receivers and runners. While this year's draft class may prove the exception to this statement, it's not likely the beginning of a trend to lean on strategically.
While I prefer to use the No.1 Tier as the priority method for sorting through this data, there are some notable differences when prioritizing the Elite Tier.
Hunter Henry drops completely off the list. It's not a statement about his ability, but the fact that this talented player who will likely have a lot of seasons with a high TE1 tier percentage benefitted last year from a pairing with Antonio Gates and an offense that schemed him open. He'll make the leap to consistent TE1 production, but the last year's scheming also put a ceiling on his upside.
In fact, Henry's game as a receiver reminded me a lot of Heath Miller. The retired Steeler was a much better blocker compared to Henry at this point, but their ability to find openings and their athletic style have a lot of similarities. Miller's role was far more often that of an outlet receiver who could deliver in the red zone and the deep seam when given the opportunity. I think Henry will be given more opportunities for these big-play targets during the next 3-5 years, but not enough that his production cracks the top three fantasy tight ends on a consistent basis.
Players on this list due to their elite upside rather than their No.1 steadiness include Martellus Bennett, Coby Fleener, Charles Clay, and Dustin Keller. All four have that athletic component to split outside, stretch the field, and earn chunk plays after the catch. The first three are still relevant, but it's Bennett and Fleener who are paired with the best quarterbacks to help them. If you're in a best-ball format and waiting for upside options after the early wave of picks, these two could be a good pairing.
Bennett is especially interesting here. His TE1 percentage is a paltry 29 percent, but keep in mind that this also includes games where he was Jason Witten's backup. If I were to look at consistency during a five-year window (2012-2016), Bennett's TE1 percentage is close to 46 percent.
In fact, let's examine the five-year window of consistency for active players at this position. This will provide the clearest reason why an elite tight end is a cornerstone for roster building in PPR Dynasty and Premium PPR (1.5 points per catch) formats.
Top 24 Active Tight ends By #1-Caliber Gms (2012-2016)
Gronkowski and Graham stand out and it's obvious that both have been primary options in their respective offenses with #1 Tier percentages well over 70 percent. Jordan Reed is closing in on that 70 percent rate after a two-year run where he has been a TE1 a league-high 71 percent of his starts and Elite for 46 percent of them (2nd only to Gronkowski). It will be interesting to see if the addition of Terrelle Pryor and health of Josh Doctson will hurt his consistency. I don't think it will.
I accidentally kept Tony Gonzalez on the list but decided not to edit it because it's a testament to Gonzalez that he was still among the best in the game despite declining athletic skills. At the same time, you can see that the Chiefs did a fine job of replacing Gonzalez with Kelce, who still produces at a high rate despite playing with a quarterback who tends to target his best players with greater caution than the elite passers. If you're risk tolerant, my advice to dynasty owners with rebuilds is to pay the premium on Kelce because Pat Mahomes could elevate Kelce's production with more tight-window throws.
Witten deserves props for holding steady at the 60 percent line as his athletic skills decline. He's still a safe consideration as an option low-end TE1 upside at a bargain price.
I can't say Julius Thomas feels safe because his recent decline has to do with his physicality being called into question after the Seahawks punished him a few years ago in the Super Bowl and his subsequent lack of professionalism to stay in shape that caused the Jaguars to turn on him. However, the data shows that he can deliver if he's in shape and there are enough weapons to keep defenses from handling him with consistent, physical play. DeVante Parker appears to be turning a corner (caring for his body and learning more about the game) as a professional and if it translates to the field, this could be Ryan Tannehill's best corps since he arrived in the NFL. Witten is the safer pick, but Thomas has more upside.
Based on this data, here's how I would place these players in tiers for 2017.
Rob Gronkowski: The most capable of a dominant season, but some boom-bust with his injury history.
Jimmy Graham: He may not seem the safest, but I think his role in the offense and last year's return to health gives him the best blend of upside and safety.
Jordan Reed: Reed has been the best option for the past two years in every category, but I wonder if more help offensively will hurt him a bit. The injury concerns from the past also put him slightly lower for me. Still, I'm splitting hairs and will often take him early.
Delanie Walker: For the past two years with Marcus Mariota, he has outproduced Eifert, Olsen, and Kelce on a per-game basis and he has been more consistent in the Elite and #1 tier. He's productive, safe, and a relative bargain if the first three options and the players I just mentioned above give you ADP sticker shock.
Travis Kelce: In terms of ability, Kelce is a top tier tight end. In terms of offense, surrounding talent, and quarterback, he's capable of top tier production but only likely to attain if a couple of the players above get hurt. His durability makes him a rock solid investment and even if he doesn't reach the Tier 1 heights, that can be worth paying a little more.
Greg Olsen: Similar to Kelce, he needs injuries to other tight ends to earn top production but he's durable and the main game in town for Cam Newton. If you prefer track record, Olsen should go above Kyle Rudolph, but if you look at the recent performances of the offenses, I might risk opting for Rudolph at a lower ADP. The real key is injury history and Olsen's durability gets the nod from me.
Kyle Rudolph: There was a notably strong connection between Rudolph and Bradford last year. While Rudolph's TE1 consistency rate was 56 percent for the past two years, if you isolate the 2016 season, Rudolph's TE1 percentage matched Jordan Reed's for tops in the league and his Elite Tier consistency was tied for second with Kelce.
Tyler Eifert: Health concerns and the Bengals offensive line changes are the anchors that have weighed down Eifert in my tiers. Strictly by the data, Eifert would be in the first tier; his two-year TE1 consistency is a healthy 67 percent and his Elite consistency is better than slightly better than Olsen's (38 percent versus Olsen's 37.5 percent).
Zach Ertz: His Elite Tier production was fourth among tight ends last year at 42.9 percent. However, he benefited from the Eagles' woes at wide receiver. I think his production will likely regress. His two-year average is decidedly in the middle of the pack. I like Ertz as a low-TE1 selection to pair with a high-upside option (Evan Engram) and hope the high-upside option emerges. If not, Ertz won't kill you.
These players all have high upside and could arguably belong in the third tier. However, their place in their respective offense's pecking orders isn't as clear as the players above.