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True Fantasy Points: 2016 Tight End Projections

A stats-based guide for separating skill from luck in tight end projections.

We're down to the wire. Draft preparation is getting down to the nitty gritty. It's time to get down to brass tacks. Pick whichever metaphor you prefer; point is that there's no time to waste heading into Labor Day weekend, so I won't waste yours with a long-winded introduction. Just remember two things. First, if you want to read about the methods underlying my True Fantasy Points system, click here or read one of the previous articles in this series by clicking here. Second, the stat rates we'll be using for tight ends are the same ones we used for wide receivers: receptions per route run (RPRR), yards per route run (YPRR), and touchdowns per route run (TDPRR).

Alright, let's get on with it.

True Stats Through 2015

As always, in the table below you'll find actual and "true" per-route stats through last season for the 44 tight ends projected to run at least 100 routes for the same team this season (sorted by YPRR):

 Actual StatsTrue Stats
PlayerTmRPRRRkYPRRRkTDPRRRkRPRRRkYPRRRkTDPRRRk
Rob Gronkowski NE 16.3% 5 2.39 1 2.79% 2 16.1% 3 2.29 1 2.43% 1
Jordan Reed WAS 21.2% 1 2.23 3 1.63% 6 19.4% 1 2.06 2 1.47% 6
Travis Kelce KC 16.2% 7 2.02 4 1.16% 20 15.6% 5 1.91 3 1.22% 22
Zach Miller CHI 17.8% 3 2.29 2 2.61% 3 15.4% 6 1.87 4 1.56% 5
Zach Ertz PHI 15.2% 8 1.82 6 0.81% 36 14.9% 8 1.77 5 1.00% 42
Jason Witten DAL 16.3% 6 1.78 8 0.98% 28 16.2% 2 1.77 6 1.02% 40
Virgil Green DEN 18.5% 2 2.00 5 1.05% 26 15.7% 4 1.76 7 1.24% 21
Greg Olsen CAR 14.3% 10 1.77 9 1.19% 19 14.3% 10 1.75 8 1.21% 23
Delanie Walker TEN 15.0% 9 1.76 10 1.11% 23 14.8% 9 1.73 9 1.17% 27
Antonio Gates SD 13.8% 15 1.73 11 1.67% 5 13.8% 14 1.73 10 1.61% 4
Jimmy Graham SEA 14.2% 11 1.79 7 0.59% 40 14.0% 11 1.70 11 1.07% 36
Brent Celek PHI 13.5% 16 1.71 12 1.09% 24 13.5% 17 1.70 12 1.13% 32
Tyler Eifert CIN 14.1% 13 1.64 13 2.24% 4 14.0% 12 1.63 13 1.74% 2
Luke Willson SEA 11.2% 34 1.61 14 0.95% 30 12.1% 35 1.61 14 1.15% 30
Garrett Celek SF 13.1% 20 1.60 15 1.46% 13 13.5% 18 1.60 15 1.32% 13
Jace Amaro NYJ 17.5% 4 1.59 16 0.92% 31 15.4% 7 1.60 16 1.20% 25
Gary Barnidge CLE 12.5% 25 1.58 17 1.31% 17 12.8% 29 1.59 17 1.30% 14
Crockett Gillmore BAL 12.6% 22 1.56 18 1.47% 12 13.1% 24 1.59 18 1.34% 11
Cameron Brate TB 11.9% 29 1.52 20 1.49% 10 13.0% 26 1.57 19 1.33% 12
Will Tye NYG 13.8% 14 1.53 19 0.99% 27 13.8% 15 1.57 20 1.20% 26
Tyler Kroft CIN 11.7% 31 1.37 26 1.06% 25 13.2% 21 1.55 21 1.26% 18
Clive Walford OAK 12.5% 24 1.47 22 1.34% 14 13.2% 22 1.55 22 1.30% 15
Jacob Tamme ATL 13.3% 17 1.48 21 0.23% 43 13.5% 19 1.54 23 0.89% 44
Charles Clay BUF 14.1% 12 1.46 23 0.83% 35 13.9% 13 1.53 24 1.13% 31
Darren Fells ARI 9.7% 40 1.43 25 1.12% 21 11.7% 38 1.53 25 1.24% 20
Austin Seferian-Jenkins TB 10.9% 36 1.45 24 1.56% 9 12.1% 36 1.52 26 1.38% 10
Jermaine Gresham ARI 10.2% 39 1.27 30 0.57% 41 12.3% 33 1.49 27 1.15% 29
Josh Hill NO 13.3% 18 1.25 31 2.95% 1 13.5% 16 1.45 28 1.73% 3
Jesse James PIT 10.5% 38 0.74 44 1.32% 15 13.0% 25 1.44 29 1.29% 17
Lance Kendricks LA 12.7% 21 1.35 28 1.24% 18 12.9% 27 1.40 30 1.25% 19
Dwayne Allen IND 11.3% 33 1.30 29 1.62% 7 11.9% 37 1.39 31 1.46% 7
Marcedes Lewis JAX 11.1% 35 1.36 27 0.91% 32 11.4% 40 1.39 32 0.99% 43
Julius Thomas JAX 12.1% 28 1.20 34 1.31% 16 12.8% 30 1.38 33 1.29% 16
Blake Bell SF 7.9% 44 0.98 42 0.00% 44 11.3% 41 1.38 34 1.02% 39
Maxx Williams BAL 12.5% 26 1.04 41 0.39% 42 13.1% 23 1.36 35 1.05% 38
Larry Donnell NYG 13.3% 19 1.23 32 1.12% 22 13.4% 20 1.34 36 1.20% 24
Richard Rodgers GB 12.5% 23 1.18 36 1.61% 8 12.9% 28 1.33 37 1.43% 8
Eric Ebron DET 10.9% 37 1.19 35 0.91% 33 11.7% 39 1.32 38 1.11% 33
Vance McDonald SF 9.3% 41 1.11 39 0.70% 39 11.0% 42 1.32 39 1.07% 35
Ryan Griffin HOU 9.3% 42 1.11 38 0.76% 37 10.8% 44 1.30 40 1.06% 37
Dion Sims MIA 11.5% 32 1.06 40 0.96% 29 12.3% 32 1.30 41 1.16% 28
Kyle Rudolph MIN 12.3% 27 1.20 33 1.49% 11 12.5% 31 1.27 42 1.42% 9
Jordan Cameron MIA 8.8% 43 0.97 43 0.75% 38 10.8% 43 1.25 43 1.10% 34
Mychal Rivera OAK 11.8% 30 1.13 37 0.83% 34 12.2% 34 1.24 44 1.01% 41

For the newbies, as an example of how to read the table, focus on the row associated with Travis Kelce. Under the "Actual Stats" header, you'll see that he's produced a 16.2% RPRR, which ranks 7th among tight ends in the table, a 4th-ranked 2.02 YPRR, and a 20th-ranked 1.16% TDPRR. Values under the "True Stats" header are the result of regressing Kelce's actual stats towards their respective league averages given his 860 routes run with the Chiefs: a 5th-ranked 15.6% True RPRR, a 3rd-ranked 1.91 True YPRR, and a 22nd-ranked 1.22% True TDPRR.

In case you didn't realize it, let me start by pointing something out. Across all of the "true" yardage rates I've presented this preseason, Rob Gronkowski's 0.23 lead in YPRR is the largest gap between first and second across all positions. Among quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers' True Yards per Attempt (YPA) was only 0.01 higher than Russell Wilson's. Among running backs, Jamaal Charles' True Yards per Carry (YPC) was 0.15 higher than Adrian Peterson's, and Theo Riddick's True YPRR was 0.16 higher than Danny Woodhead's. And finally, among wide receivers, Julio Jones' True YPRR was only 0.02 higher than Antonio Brown's.

But here's the kicker: As much of an outlier Gronkowski is with respect to "true" yardage rates, it pales in comparison to how much of an outlier he is with respect to "true" touchdown rates. Compared to Woodhead's True TDPRR lead among running backs, Gronkowski's 0.69 percentage point lead over Tyler Eifert is over six times larger. And, get this, it's 23 times larger than Dez Bryant's True TDPRR lead among wide receivers.

All of the above of which is in service of hammering home the following point: Gronkowski's perennial status as the only tight end worth a first-round pick per value based drafting (VBD) may have the veneer of being about his super-sized usage in the Patriots' offense, but the underlying "truth" is that it's more so because said usage is due to Gronkowski having the most outlying "true" skill at any skill position in the NFL.

Before moving onto the projections, and simply because I've made it a tradition this preseason to mention such things, only three tight ends rank in the Top 6 of all three "true" stat categories. Obviously, one is Gronkowski. Also somewhat obviously, another is Jordan Reed. Totally not obvious, however, is that the third man is Zach Miller. Wait, what? In his first season with the Bears, Miller's 34-439-5 traditional stat line wasn't anything to write home about...until you consider that he achieved it in only 191 routes run, or only about 13 routes run per game. For comparison, both Gronkowski and Reed average over twice that amount in their respective offenses.

True Projections for 2016

Below are my TFP projections alongside David Dodds' projections as of August 31st. The table is sorted by the "DIFF" column, which represents the difference between the two based on Footballguys' standard scoring system:

 Dodds StatsTrue StatsPoints
PlayerTmYdsTDYdsTDDoddsTFPDiffRk
Jordan Reed WAS 792 7 785 6 121.2 112.0 +9.2 1
Delanie Walker TEN 787 6 761 5 114.7 106.8 +7.9 2
Jace Amaro NYJ 321 3 311 2 50.1 45.1 +5.0 3
Travis Kelce KC 805 7 857 5 122.5 118.5 +4.0 4
Tyler Eifert CIN 617 6 572 6 97.7 93.8 +3.9 5
Gary Barnidge CLE 780 6 744 6 114.0 110.9 +3.1 6
Richard Rodgers GB 357 4 350 4 59.7 57.6 +2.1 7
Virgil Green DEN 431 4 458 3 67.1 65.1 +2.0 8
Jordan Cameron MIA 410 4 420 4 65.0 64.0 +1.0 9
Maxx Williams BAL 314 3 331 3 49.4 48.5 +0.9 10
Julius Thomas JAX 626 6 629 6 98.6 98.2 +0.4 11
Charles Clay BUF 588 4 570 4 82.8 82.4 +0.4 12
Zach Ertz PHI 735 5 773 4 103.5 103.4 +0.1 13
Jason Witten DAL 653 4 667 4 89.3 89.7 -0.4 14
Greg Olsen CAR 828 6 849 6 118.8 120.1 -1.3 15
Jacob Tamme ATL 420 3 456 3 60.0 61.4 -1.4 16
Jimmy Graham SEA 564 4 596 4 80.4 82.0 -1.6 17
Eric Ebron DET 578 5 600 5 87.8 90.0 -2.2 18
Brent Celek PHI 240 2 277 2 36.0 38.8 -2.8 19
Jesse James PIT 495 4 498 4 73.5 76.5 -3.0 20
Rob Gronkowski NE 1069 12 1113 12 178.9 182.1 -3.2 21
Antonio Gates SD 599 7 674 6 101.9 105.3 -3.4 22
Ryan Griffin HOU 242 2 265 2 36.2 39.6 -3.4 23
Luke Willson SEA 226 2 267 2 34.6 38.1 -3.5 24
Cameron Brate TB 333 3 364 3 51.3 54.9 -3.6 25
Zach Miller CHI 549 5 592 5 84.9 88.9 -4.0 26
Austin Seferian-Jenkins TB 421 4 455 4 66.1 70.2 -4.1 27
Josh Hill NO 221 2 225 3 34.1 38.6 -4.5 28
Lance Kendricks STL 343 3 370 3 52.3 56.8 -4.5 29
Mychal Rivera OAK 212 1 213 2 27.2 31.8 -4.6 30
Tyler Kroft CIN 170 1 189 2 23.0 28.0 -5.0 31
Larry Donnell NYG 343 2 341 3 46.3 52.4 -6.1 32
Will Tye NYG 488 3 501 4 66.8 73.0 -6.2 33
Jermaine Gresham ARI 177 1 205 2 23.7 30.0 -6.3 34
Marcedes Lewis JAX 187 1 220 2 24.7 31.4 -6.7 35
Clive Walford OAK 501 4 542 5 74.1 81.3 -7.2 36
Blake Bell SF 237 1 256 2 29.7 36.9 -7.2 37
Dion Sims MIA 222 1 231 2 28.2 35.6 -7.4 38
Vance McDonald SF 482 4 541 4 72.2 80.3 -8.1 39
Darren Fells ARI 207 1 235 2 26.7 34.9 -8.2 40
Crockett Gillmore BAL 265 2 315 3 38.5 47.4 -8.9 41
Dwayne Allen IND 588 5 606 6 88.8 98.7 -9.9 42
Kyle Rudolph MIN 510 4 510 6 75.0 85.0 -10.0 43
Garrett Celek SF 242 1 274 2 30.2 40.9 -10.7 44

Quickly referring back to the Gronkowski discussion above, his unquestioned "true" stat superiority translates to TFP.  The No. 2 tight end is Greg Olsen according to my projections, but he's 62.0 points in Gronkowski's rearview mirror. And Dodds' projections tend to agree, what with the 56.4-point gap between Gronkowski and Travis Kelce. Once again, the bottom line is that Gronkowski is far and away the TE1.

One final note pertinent to the player discussions you're about to read is that most of the discrepancies between Dodds and TFP are due to differing projections for TDPRR. It turns out that TDPRR has a different stabilization rate for tight ends than it does for wide receivers; namely, it stabilizes much faster (740 routes run vs. 882 routes run). Therefore, for most of the tight ends in the table, Dodds' implied TDPRR adjustments from 2015 to 2016 are wildly different than those of TFP. And because touchdowns account for an outsized portion of tight end scoring compared to other positions, many of these large TDPRR differences translate to large point differentials.

Overrated: Jordan Reed

A lot of chatter in the fantasy football universe over the past couple of months has concerned Reed as a potential value for those inclined to take a tight end early, but not as early as Gronkowski's ADP. To be sure, TFP also likes Reed (as evidenced by his "true" stat rankings mentioned earlier), but only at an even lower pick. The explanation for Reed's Dodds-TFP differential is a disagreement about touchdowns. Whereas TFP assumes a regression-to-the-mean-induced decrease from 1.63% Actual TDPRR to 1.47% True TDPRR, Dodds projects an increase to 1.84%.

Overrated: Delanie Walker

The discrepancy for Walker also mainly involves TDPRR. Namely, despite his 1,447 routes run with the Titans meaning that Walker's 1.11% Actual TDPRR represents 66.2% skill (vs. 33.8% randomness), Dodds projects a massive increase (to 1.37%), whereas TFP projects a much more modest increase (to 1.17%).

Underrated: Vance McDonald (and Garrett Celek and Blake Bell)

Continuing the theme, Celek and Bell are -- shocker! -- underrated because of TFP assuming higher TDPRRs than Dodds does. For Bell, Dodds adjusts his TDPRR upward from 0.00% to 0.54%, whereas TFP adjusts it all the way to 1.02% given that he's only run 189 routes with the 49ers. Celek's situation is the opposite. Although both Dodds and TFP assume his 1.46% Actual TDPRR will decrease this season, Celek's 206 routes run suggest it should only regress to a 1.32% True TDPRR. Dodds, on the other hand, regresses it all the way down to 0.59%. This is odd considering that, while Celek's actual and "true" rates rank in the Top 15 of tight ends in the table, Dodds' adjustment drops him all the way to 41st (or 5th-worst).

As for McDonald, we've finally encountered a tight end for which YPRR, not TDPRR, explains his point differential. Specifcally, while Dodds' 0.98% implied TDPRR is in line with TFP's 1.07%, McDonald is expected to gain 0.21 more YPRR according to TFP.

Underrated: Dwayne Allen

OK, enough of that little detour, let's get back to TDPRR-induced discrepancies between the two projection systems. Going back to the first table, you'll see that Allen's 1.62% Actual TDPRR ranks seventh, as does his 1.46% True TDPRR. This ranking consistency makes since given that Allen's 802 routes run with the Colts is higher than the 740-route stabilization point for TDPRR, meaning his actual touchdown performance is now on the skill side of the skill-luck spectrum. It's curious then, that Dodds' projection for Allen drops his TDPRR ranking not just outside the Top 10; even outside the Top 20. And to step outside of the realm of statistics in closing, another aspect of my curiosity here is that one would think Coby Fleener's exodus to New Orleans would lead to an improvement in TDPRR for Allen, not a decline.

Honorable Mentions

Overrated: Travis Kelce and Gary Barnidge.

Underrated: Clive Walford and Larry Donnell (and Will Tye).

Just Right: Zach Ertz and Charles Clay.