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ADP Showdown - George Kittle vs. Darren Waller

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George Kittle and Darren Waller finished as the TE3 and TE2 in terms of fantasy points per game respectively last season. But should you draft them as such this season, and which player presents the better value at their current average draft position (ADP)?

Per FantasyDataNFL, Kittle currently has an ADP of 28.5 in PPR, making him an early third-round pick in 12-team leagues. Waller, meanwhile, has an ADP of 22.9, making him a late second-round pick in 12-team leagues. The question becomes, is it worth using your late second-round pick on Waller, or should you hold out and draft Kittle in the next round instead?

Let's dive into some data and come up with the best strategy!

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Which Players Have a Similar ADP?

Let's first take a look at which players have a similar ADP to both Waller and Kittle. The ADPs of DK Metcalf (20.2), Patrick Mahomes (20.8), Justin Jefferson (23.1), J.K. Dobbins (24), and A.J. Brown (25.5) all fall within +/- 3 spots of Waller at 22.9. Meanwhile, the ADPs of David Montgomery (26.6), Keenan Allen (26.9), Chris Carson (29.7), Terry McLaurin (29.8), and CeeDee Lamb (31) all fall within +/- 3 spots of Kittle at 28.5.

As you can see, most of the sure-fire RB1s, as well as most of the consensus top-five wide receivers (Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins, and Calvin Ridley), are off the board by the time Waller is being drafted.

Because the value difference between Dobbins and Carson, or Metcalf and Allen is very much subjective and in the eyes of the beholder, the best way to look at the Waller vs. Kittle argument is to pretend their ADPs are the same. Every draft board is different, and thus ADPs are subject to move up or down even as many as five spots in the early rounds. Because their ADPs are so close, we'll simply focus on which player has the higher upside heading into the 2021 season.

 

Can Darren Waller Replicate His Dominant 2020 Season?

Waller showed us last season that 2019 wasn't a fluke. In his first season as a starter for the Raiders in 2019, Waller led all pass-catchers with 117 targets, good for a 23.8% target share. He also caught 76.9% of those targets. To put that number into perspective, Travis Kelce has never had a catch percentage higher than 72.4% since Patrick Mahomes took over as the starting quarterback for the Chiefs.

Waller followed up his 2019 season with an even more impressive, and frankly dominant, 2020 season. His target share grew to 27.7% and he still managed to catch 73.8% of passes thrown his way. He also led all tight ends in red-zone targets with 27 and was 2nd amongst all pass-catchers behind just Davante Adams, who led the league with 32 red-zone targets. Simply put, if the targets are there, Waller is going to produce, and produce in a big way. But will he see another 9.1 targets per game in 2021 as he saw a season ago?

The Raiders lost their top wideout in Nelson Agholor to the Patriots this offseason. To replace him, they brought in John Brown and Willie Snead IV. Neither of these guys projects to fill the WR1 role in 2021. Instead, that could belong to Bryan Edwards, who has received lots of praise from Jon Gruden and the Raiders coaching staff in training camp. Henry Ruggs IV, like Edwards, also enters his second NFL season. Even if Edwards, Ruggs, or both take a step forward in 2021, it'd be a total shock if someone other than Waller became Derek Carr's go-to receiver, especially in the red zone.

Another data point that bodes in Waller's favor is the fact that the Raiders played at a faster pace in 2020 than they did in 2018 and 2019 in coach Gruden's first two seasons. They were 24th in plays per game in 2018 and 2019 with 62.1 plays per game, while in 2020 they ranked 14th with 64.8 plays per game.

 

Can George Kittle Lead All 49ers Pass-Catchers in Targets in 2021?

After winning the NFC West in 2019 with a 13-3 record, the 49ers hit a proverbial wall in 2020, going just 6-10 and finishing dead last in the division. This was likely a result of the numerous injuries they dealt with throughout the season. Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Jeff Wilson Jr. all missed a number of games.

That led to more negative game scripts and more pass plays per game. In 2019, Garoppolo averaged just 28.2 pass attempts per game, ranked 31st in the league. In 2020, however, the 49ers averaged 35.6 pass attempts per game. That's clearly not what head coach Kyle Shanahan wants to do in order to win ball games. He would much rather run the football and control the clock, as evidenced by his teams' very successful 2019 campaign.

What does this all mean for Kittle though?

In 2018, he averaged 8.5 targets per game with a 26.5% target share. His competition for targets that season was Kendrick Bourne, Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin, and Dante Pettis. So basically, there was no competition for targets, so Kittle was the target hog.

In 2019, Shanahan and the 49ers won 13 games by dominating opponents at the line of scrimmage and by controlling the clock. They added two formidable wide receivers in Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel, and all of a sudden Kittle averaged just 7.6 targets per game with a 22.9% target share. He still finished as the PPR TE2 in 2019, but that was due to his ridiculous 79.4% catch rate and the fact that Darren Waller only caught three touchdowns that season.

Now add in the fact that the 49ers could decide to roll with Trey Lance to start the season. Lance is a dual-threat quarterback who brings another element to the offense with his legs. He averaged 10 rushes per game in college, and could easily average 5-7 rush attempts per game in the NFL. If the 49ers are as good as we all think they are, the pass attempts per game likely revert back to the 2019 level when they threw just 28.2 times per game. With Aiyuk and Samuel flanking Kittle, don't expect many more than 7.6 targets per game in 2021.

 

Conclusion

In terms of ADP, Waller (22.9) and Kittle (28.5) are being drafted very close to one another. So much so, that it's almost negligible and we should simply be taking the tight end we feel has the higher upside. There will always be fantasy leagues where someone reaches for Kittle, and on the flip side, there will always be fantasy leagues where Waller falls into the third round.

So who should we take, Waller or Kittle?

Well, due to a variety of reasons discussed above, Waller is more likely to run more routes per game, have a higher target share, and see more targets (including red zone targets). In 2020, Waller ran 31.6 routes per game, while Kittle ran just 27 routes per game.

Additionally, in 2018 and 2019, Kittle averaged 1.3 red zone targets per game. In 2020, that number dipped to just 0.4 red zone targets per game. In comparison, Waller averaged 1.7 red zone targets per game last season.

The Waller vs. Kittle argument is a perfect reminder that in fantasy football we must always be forward-looking. There's no doubting Kittle's talent and the fact that he's been one of the best tight ends in the NFL over the last three seasons, but that doesn't mean he should be drafted in fantasy football over Waller, who more closely resembled the TE1, Travis Kelce, in 2020...and Kelce's ADP sits at 8.8.

It's almost as if you're getting Waller at a discount at an ADP of 22.9 since he only has one truly dominant season under his belt. Take advantage of this opportunity while it still exists, because it may not in 2022.



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