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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.

Here are the types of tight ends between 2005-2017 that helped generate fantasy-rich passing offenses.

Tight ends with the primary label are rare. This makes sense when considering that there is usually three tiers of tight end starters: the top 1-2 options, those in the 3-5 range that are occasionally closer to the top tier, and those in the 6-14 range.

  • 34 percent of these fantasy rich offenses had a "primary" tight end.
  • 29 percent of the offenses with 2 starting-caliber pass catchers had a primary tight end was one of those players.
  • 40 percent of the offenses with 3 or more starting-caliber pass catchers had a primary tight end in the mix.

The insight here is that the richest offenses control the middle of the field in the passing game with either a top tight end and/or a productive slot receiver and that primary tight ends have greater representation in fantasy-rich offenses with at least three starting-caliber pass catchers.

If you're looking for a quarterback with a strong shot of supporting three fantasy starters, consider a team with a top tight end, two productive tight ends, or a top tight end and a productive slot receiver. This is valuable information when also considering receivers and tight ends after the fifth round of drafts.

As mentioned last week, the Chargers are a good team to consider when looking for tight end production. Despite Keenan Allen and Travis Benjamin missing or playing extended time last year with injuries, Philip Rivers supported three fantasy starters without the two players who were projected to earn the most target on the perimeter. Tyrell Williams, Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry got the job done and Rivers also fed Melvin Gordon III 41 catches.At least for fantasy purposes, Rivers has shown that he (and this offense) doesn't need Allen for this unit to thrive. When forming a draft plan that includes this information, I'd seriously consider Chargers with these conditions in mind:

I'll provide more examples of how this information should be applied to the 2017 season later. First, some general insights about primary options with some current examples of players for each category:

  • They deliver multiple years of strong production: These tight ends help these units earn multiple years as fantasy-rich offenses. In fact, 12 tight ends own 35 of the 56 appearances on this list. The first 6 on this list are primary options who account for 25 of these 35 appearances (number of years supporting these wealthy fantasy schemes in parenthesis below).
  • Gonzalez, Graham, and Winslow helped deliver fantasy-rich offenses with two different teams. There's a good argument that Winslow was a primary option despite the motorcycle wreck that eliminated his elite athletic upside.
  • 95 percent of the primary options had the speed trait. Tony Gonzalez at the end of his career was the exception.
  • All of the primary options had routes and rebounding traits.
  • 79 percent of the primary options had YAC traits. Gonzalez at career's end was the exception and the only tight end on this list who remained a primary without the speed and YAC traits because he was so skilled as a route runner and rebounder.

Knowing that Gonzalez is the outlier, we can safely say that with one exception, primary options all possess a combination of Routes-Rebounding-Speed-YAC.

The profile of sub-positions among these primary options:

  • 65 percent of the primary tight ends possessed the Slot-WR traits. Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten (both had Slot, but not WR) accounted for the primaries without the trait combination.
  • All primary options had the Slot trait.
  • 89 percent of the primary options had the In-line trait and the H-Back trait. Jimmy Graham is the lone exception.
  • 63 percent of the primary options had the WR trait.

If you're seeking a primary option at tight end, he's most likely an in-line option who can play H-Back and work in the slot. If not, he's Jimmy Graham, Shannon Sharpe, or Ozzie Newsome—wide receivers disguised as tight ends who have Slot-WR sub roles.

Secondary Options In Offenses Supporting Two Starting Pass Catchers

  • All tight ends that were secondary options in the offense had the Route trait.
  • 65 percent of these secondary options in fantasy-rich offenses supporting 2 starting pass catchers had the YAC trait.
  • 22 percent had the Rebound trait.
  • 9 percent had the Speed trait.
  • 65 percent had the Route-YAC combo, which was the most common by a large margin.
  • 91 percent had the In-line sub-position.
  • 84 percent had the H-Back sub-position.
  • 26 percent had the Slot sub-position.
  • None had the WR sub-position.

Secondary Options In Offenses Supporting At Least Three Starting Pass Catchers

  • All tight ends that were secondary options in this scenario had the Route trait.
  • 75 percent of these secondary options in fantasy-rich offenses supporting at least 3 starting pass catchers had the YAC trait.
  • 25 percent had the Rebound trait.
  • 17 percent had the Speed trait.
  • 75 percent had the Route-YAC combo, again the most common by a large margin.
  • 67 percent had the In-line sub-position.
  • All tight ends had the H-Back sub-position.
  • 75 percent had the Slot sub-position.
  • None had the WR position.

Insights I'd glean from these breakdowns:

  • Tight ends that are used in the slot or as H-Backs in addition to In-line roles are most likely to deliver starter fantasy production.
  • Routes and YAC are more prevalent in fantasy starters at the position than Speed and Rebounding.
  • If the tight end's sub-role is based on Speed, Rebounding, and Slot-WR traits, he better be great at it and featured as such in the offense.

Tight ends MOST LIKELY IN A FANTASY-RICH ENVIRONMENT IN 2017

This is not a ranking or an exhaustive list of tight ends that will be fantasy starters (top-12 at the position in a 12-team league), but it's a good starting point for creating a draft list. This section is based on last week's list of quarterbacks most likely to support a fantasy-rich environment. However, I'd take the first eight players on this list, add Greg Olsen to the mix, and I'd feel pretty good about any of them as starters this year.

ADPs are based on PPR as of May 21.

Safest...

Travis Kelce: The Chiefs tight end may not be the best fantasy tight end contributing to a fantasy-rich offense, but he's among the safest. When it comes to the percentage of quarterback targets earned in an offense, Kelce has two of the top eight seasons for tight ends since 2012. Kelce also has three of the top seven seasons during that span for the percentage of quarterback passing yards. While touchdowns get headlines, yardage and targets have greater consistency. I also appreciate Kelce's track record of durability. Look for Kelce and Tyreek Hill to be atop Alex Smith's target totem once again.

Jimmy Graham: Few expected Graham to return from a torn quadriceps tendon and perform this well, especially when Russell Wilson was banged up for most of the year and the offensive line couldn't protect Wilson or open holes for the run game. Considering that Graham was a top-five option and Wilson supported two No. 1 fantasy-caliber starters (Graham and Doug Baldwin) in a tough situation, I'd say Graham's 2017 looks even brighter.

Delanie Walker: Walker is safer than Gronkowski and Reed and he's in an offense that is built around his skill set. So much so, that the Titans drafted Jonnu Smith—a move tight end with receiver-like fluidity and talent after the catch—as a player to groom in Walker's shadow. Walker benefits from a strong offensive line and play-action game that also moves Walker around the formation to create great matchups. New England and Washington do similar work with Gronkowski and Reed, but these two have ADPs of Pick 19 and Pick 38 and Walker's ADP is Pick 73.

Here are what some of your potential choices will look like when you consider these three options. The options in bold are the paths I'd take:

Gronkowski vs. Walker

Reed vs. Walker

Not all are weighted in Walker's favor, which should tell you that Gronkowski and Reed aren't that far behind Walker on this list.

Rob Gronkowski: The only place where Gronkowski isn't superior to Kelce is staying healthy. Unfortunately, it's a trait that carries enough weight that you have to factor a boom-bust element into Gronkowski's fantasy prospects. When he's healthy, he's by far the most productive tight end in the game. His presence also creates a lot of big plays for his teammates.

Jordan Reed: Like Gronkowski, his risk factor for injury may be higher than his peers. But also like the Patriots tight end, Reed is a production machine when he's on the field. He was on track to lead NFL tight ends in receptions and touchdowns last year and still was seventh and tied for third in each category despite missing four games. Kirk Cousins loses DeSean Jackson but gains a better red zone and "tight window" receiver in Terrelle Pryor. Vernon Davis may not have starter value for fantasy owners, but his presence on the field creates a lot of mismatches for Reed and the rest of the receiving corps. Look for another year of strong production from Reed.

Talent And Good Environment...

Hunter Henry: ESPN writer Eric D. Williams led off a recent article about Henry by stating the tight end was one of the best route runners at the position to enter the league in a long time. While I like Henry and his route running, Williams' lede doesn't account for the fact that the Chargers used a lot of two-tight end sets to help Henry get lost in the motion of the play and work free without the need of a great route against man coverage. Zone routes are important, but they are easier when the targeted receiver is the beneficiary of play-action, counter action, and throw-backs. This year, Henry is expected to become the primary tight end and Antonio Gates a third-down and red zone presence.

While I am not significantly concerned about Henry's ability to run "big-boy" routes, the Chargers have a ton of offensive flexibility when all the skill players are healthy. Philip Rivers has proven multiple times that he can support 2-3 fantasy starters in the passing game and those starters aren't always top talents. If Henry struggles to get open when the scheme isn't working him free, the Chargers have Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Mike Williams, Melvin Gordon III, a healthy Branden Olver, and Gates. Rivers won't lean on a player who isn't performing. I don't expect this problem, but it's easy to see how things could go wrong for those on the Henry bandwagon. Plus, it's fun to serve up a round, white, mint-scented cake to my buddy Steve.

Martellus Bennett: The journeyman starter couldn't stay healthy in New England, but he lands in an environment that heralds a lot of promise. When healthy, Bennett is one of the best YAC tight ends in the business in a West Coast scheme that is designed to help receivers earn it. Bennett is a significant upgrade to Jared Cook as both a blocker and receiver. As long as Bennett's ankle injuries are fully healed, look for a strong possibility of top-five production if Gronkowski and Reed fail to stay healthy. With an ADP of 96, it's enticing value.

Tyler Eifert: December back surgery with an unknown return date isn't a promising sign for Eifert. His ADP is TE5 at pick 64. This is crazy when considering he's above Graham, Walker, and Bennett—three options that I'd consider ahead of a healthy Eifert. In theory, Eifert has the surrounding skill talent to earn a high volume of productive work. In practice, Eifert's injury and the loss of two excellent linemen could force Eifert to remain at the line of scrimmage like fellow Notre Dame alum Kyle Rudolph had to do a couple of years ago. I'm placing Eifert in this tier as if he were healthy. However, until that's a proven fact, I'd let others take him in the sixth round—or any round with single digits for that matter.

Evan Engram: According to NJ.com's Dan Duggan, the Giants used Engram in the slot, split wide, at H-Back, and in-line during last Thursday's practice. This is exactly what every knowledgeable football fan with common sense expected when New York drafted Engram despite the Giants saying that Engram would be a traditional tight end. Engram may earn snaps as a traditional tight end, but I bet the majority of his best targets will come as an H-Back, slot receiver, or wideout. With Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall flanking him and Sterling Shepard's precision in the middle of the field, Engram could run wild. While I don't expect Eli Manning to support four fantasy starters the way his older brother did in Denver, the surrounding talent is good enough for the record books to have a pair of Mannings at the top of his category. I'm not a big fan of endorsing rookie tight ends as fantasy starters, but when that player will likely have a sub-role as a Slot-WR, the likelihood of good production is higher (think Gronkowski, Graham, and Aaron Hernandez). As TE 20 at an ADP of 166, Engram is a great late-round pick as a high-upside reserve TE.

Potential Environment...

O.J. Howard: The best in-line prospect in this class with freakish athletic ability for the position, Howard has the talent and it's easy to imagine him running free up the seams of defenses when Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson are so dangerous on the perimeter and the Buccaneers have a capable ground attack to generate believable play action. I'm also optimistic that Jameis Winston can support 2-3 fantasy starters in the passing game. The bigger question is Cameron Brate's early involvement. Will Tampa phase out last year's No. 7 PPR TE immediately or will they use him in two-tight end sets and keep Howard at the line as a blocker? Considering Howard's 117 ADP as TE13, it might be worth the risk if he's available and players like Samaje Perine, Marvin Jones Jr, and Eli Manning are already off the board.

Jack Doyle: Donte Moncrief missed part of the year and despite improved play from Phillip Dorsett, the Colts receiver coach said that Dorsett was only competent as a vertical route runner and must become a complete player. It left Andrew Luck with Doyle has his second-best option in the passing game. The return of Moncrief and the potential emergence of Eric Swoope at tight end could foil a repeat fantasy performance for Doyle, who is a savvy zone option but not a great athlete at the position. Luck has the skills to support 2-3 fantasy starters in the passing game, but I'd monitor Swoope's preseason before leaning on Doyle as that sneaky starter you can take as your first TE at pick 142.

Jared Cook: Can Derek Carr support three fantasy starters in the passing game? We know he can generate quality targets for two receivers but is Cook the upgrade to make it three? Can Marshawn Lynch generate enough balance in the run game to open the offense and Cook's targets with the play-action game? There aren't easy answers, but the fact that Cook is TE23 with an ADP of 188 gives fantasy owners the luxury of taking a flier on him.

Coby Fleener: A fantasy disappointment last year for those expecting the same or better than Jimmy Graham and Ben Watson, Fleener gets a shot at redemption. First, he must prove that he's more comfortable with the offense. He claimed greater comfort during the second half of 2016, but his production didn't show it. Fantasy owners aren't buying it, but as TE19 at pick 165? It's a price I can't pass up as my No. 2 TE or I go high-risk and target two of Doyle, Engram, Fleener, and one of my next three players on this list.

Eric Ebron: Matthew Stafford is a consistent fantasy QB1 when viewing him through the seasonal lens, but not so much week-to-week. Part of the problem could be the inconsistency of his surrounding talent that either can't stay healthy or played focused football. Ebron has been guilty of both. Last year, he was on pace for a TE1 season but missed three games. If Ebron, Marvin Jones Jr, and Ameer Abdullah all stay healthy, the bigger questions are how many fantasy starters can Stafford realistically support (two is likely, three is possible) and who will they be (Golden Tate and Jones with the likelihood of Abdullah and Theo Riddick blocking Ebron from TE1 production)? With Ebron's ADP as TE12, it's a bet for him to reach his likely upside rather than getting his value. However, if you're going high-risk and pairing him with one of the players above, it could pay off.

Austin Hooper: We've seen Matt Ryan support 2-3 fantasy starters in the passing game multiple times during his career. NCAA regulations regarding Hooper's academic schedule did not allow him to participate in June team activities last year and it put him behind. He flashed his "my ball mentality" and underrated athletic ability after the catch at times last year, and he'll get a real opportunity to start this year. I would look for Hooper and Ryan to develop a strong red zone and third-down connection this year. If so, Hooper's upside could put him No. 2 on the passing game's pecking order by season's end. Such a spot could earn Hooper top-10 production. A conservative view would be just outside the fantasy top-12. At pick 185 with a TE22 ADP, I'd pair him with Ebron, Fleener, or Doyle if waiting late at the position.

Dwayne Allen: Nothing like replacing one tight end who got hurt with another who can't stay healthy as a supplement to its star option who has missed 22 games since 2012. Of course, it will probably work out just fine for the Patriots. If it does, it's because Allen is a versatile option on the field with excellent skill as a blocker, short-range receiver, and runner after the catch. His versatility in these areas is as strong as Aaron Hernandez but without the field stretching athletic ability. Most people will be down on Allen because of his injuries and the fact that he dropped three passes on the first day of Patriots minicamp might solidify fan thoughts that he's an overrated, piece of china. But as a player you can take near the end of the draft, he's a good pick for a team that got quality production from its two tight ends last year when both were healthy.