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Gut Check No. 398: Tight Ends In Fantasy-Rich Offenses

Matt Waldman builds a profile of tight ends in fantasy-rich passing offenses.

The phrase "too many mouths to feed" sums up a common concern among fantasy footballers. When they see the addition of a free agent like DeSean Jackson to a Tampa Bay roster that subsequently drafted O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin, there's a worry that Jackson won't deliver fantasy starter production because of the other options robbing him of potential targets.

Whether or not Jackson delivers fantasy starter production in Tampa will have more to do with reasons other than the "too many mouths to feed" worry. I've studied 12 years of passing game data and an average of 8.75 offenses per year field at least 2 options that are starting-caliber fantasy options (top-36 for receivers and top 12 for tight ends). And 3 offenses per year field with at least 3 starter-caliber options.

Simple math from the statement above indicates that, on average, 21 fantasy-starter pass catchers come from these teams each year. That's about two rounds of talent, but we know that not everyone in your league will properly identify that talent within the first 2-4 rounds of a fantasy draft.

Instead of concerning yourself with "too many mouths to feed," focus on which dining rooms have the layout and personnel to serve a high volume of tasty dishes and incorporate those insights into your summer draft strategies.

The Gut Check profiled quarterbacks and wide receivers that support these fantasy-rich environments in a passing game and which players are most likely to deliver this fall. This week's article will do the same with tight ends.

THE OVERVIEW

Let's begin with the broad strokes from the data collected between 2005-2016:

  • 103 passing offenses fielded at least 2 starting-caliber fantasy receiving options.
    • 2005: 9 teams.
    • 2006: 7 teams.
    • 2007: 10 teams.
    • 2008: 8 teams.
    • 2009: 10 teams.
    • 2010: 6 teams.
    • 2011: 8 teams.
    • 2012: 8 teams.
    • 2013: 8 teams.
    • 2014: 10 teams.
    • 2015: 9 teams.
    • 2016: 10 teams.
  • 71 passing offenses fielded 2 fantasy options.
  • 31 passing offenses fielded 3 fantasy options.
  • 1 passing offense fielded 4 fantasy options (Denver's 2013 offense with Peyton Manning, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas).

Using this data for the 2017 season, we can estimate that 8-10 teams will have passing offenses that deliver at least 2 starting-caliber receiving options and 2-3 of those teams have 3 options. As I mentioned last week, the odds of a team producing four options is better than the odds of the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions facing each other in Super Bowl LII, but you're not betting with your kid's college fund on either proposition.

THE PROFILE OF Tight endS IN FANTASY-RICH OFFENSES (SCHEMES WITH MULTIPLE FANTASY STARTERS)

Let's begin with assigning labels to classify the style of their games. There are five types listed below. The primary types usually have at least three of the secondary skills listed after it in strong supply. The next five types are skills of secondary options who may possess 2-3 of the classifications below with varying degrees of competency but don't need a complete game to produce at a high level.

  • Primary: These receivers are the go-to guys—receivers possess enough athletic ability, technical skill, and big-play reliability to fit in multiple classifications (speedster, rebounder, route technician, and slot). They also play from multiple spots in the lineup such as the slot, split wide, H-Back, or inline. Let's call these spots "sub-positions." Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, and Jimmy Graham are all great examples of players who were used in multiple sub-positions.
  • Speedsters: Big-play specialists who can stretch the seam or beat defensive backs when split wide. Long-time starting tight ends often lose the speed component of their games well before they lose the ability to be productive. Gates, Gonzalez, and Witten are excellent examples. You'll find that speed is one of the least important traits to long-term productivity at the position.
  • Rebounder: Options that possess great leaping ability, size, and/or skill to win position against a defender with the ball in the air. These players are paired well with quarterbacks that either lacks great pinpoint accuracy on vertical routes or have great anticipation and placement on routes that allow the passer to "throw the receiver open". Graham and Gronkowski are two of the best in the game at winning 50/50 targets.
  • Route Technician: Pass catchers who may lack great speed and/or size, but they can run every route with precision and they have a library of effective techniques to beat press-man, off-man, and zone coverage. Gates, Gonzalez, and Witten were great man-to-man route runners and still thrived late in their careers against linebackers because they still retained great quickness and technique. All three are also masterful at finding open zones, which requires a strong knowledge of the defense and communication with the quarterback before and after the snap.
  • YAC: They may not be fast or great route options, but they can earn yards after the catch with a combination of quickness, strength, and physicality.Heath Miller is a good past example of a player who never was a classic primary option, but could approach that production thanks to his YAC.

As with the quarterbacks and wide receivers, I applied these labels with the mindset of keeping the assignments obvious. They are not always permanent career labels. Gonzalez and Gates began their careers with the speedster label but eventually lost it with age.

Sub-Positions

  • Slot: These options spend most of their time working inside the hash or drawing safeties and linebackers with inside position to the flats where they earn a position advantage with the route. They're usually skilled route runners but may have difficulty beating press-man. Some of them also lack the speed to earn extensive playing time on the perimeter. Gates, Gonzalez, and Witten "semi-retired" to the slot after years as primary options who could win in every conceivable fashion. Jack Doyle is a young tight end lacking top athletic ability who played this "old-man game" to the hilt with Andrew Luck last year.
  • H-Back: These tight ends block well enough to handle linebackers and safeties at the edges of the line of scrimmage and understand shallow zones well enough for an offense to move them around a formation. H-Backs are usually excellent athletes that are too small to work in-line where they would be required to handle defensive ends or larger linebackers. Owen Daniels was a fine athlete, but not a big enough play to handle in-line duties. I suspect Evan Engram may never evolve past H-Back when considering blocking capabilities.
  • Wide Receiver: Some "move" tight ends are little more than large wide receivers. Jimmy Graham was essentially a slot receiver and outside receiver for the Saints. New Orleans was honest with themselves about what Graham could do and didn't waste time trying to make him into something he wasn't. Seattle wants Graham to be more and he's reportedly making strides, but he's still at his best as a big wide receiver who wins when detached from the formation or running through interior zones with his size and speed.
  • In-Line: This is the classic tight end role attached to the line of scrimmage and equal parts blocker and receiver. Witten and Gronkowski are in-line tight ends who happen to be athletic and versatile enough in the passing game to perform the other three roles listed above.

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