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Dynasty Startup ADP Arbitrage - Eric Ebron vs Irv Smith Jr.

Trying to make decisions in a dynasty startup draft can feel like a lifetime commitment as you're picking a player who'll hopefully be sitting on your roster for years to come. One strategy is to identify some hyped up players, then identify a similar player who's going at a slightly later ADP to draft instead.

That can be especially important at the tight end position, where there's a huge falloff after the first handful of players. How do you know if you should draft player X in the ninth round or player Y in the 11th?

In this piece, I'll be looking at tight ends Irv Smith Jr. and Eric Ebron. Per Dynasty League Football's mock draft ADP data, Ebron is currently the 104th player and 10th tight end going off the board in dynasty, while Smith is 132nd, the 15th tight end off the board. In a 12-team league, this puts Ebron as a ninth-round pick with Smith as an 11th round pick. So, which one is the better value?

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The Case for Eric Ebron

I lived in the Toledo area for a couple of years for grad school, which meant I met a lot of Lions fans, which also meant that I played in fantasy leagues with a lot of Lions fans. Therefore, my thoughts on the first few years of Eric Ebron's career were colored by how much the Lions fans I knew just absolutely hated him. Didn't like how early he was picked. Didn't like his involvement in the passing game. Didn't like anything about him.

So when Ebron moved to the Colts, I thought he'd be playing a pretty distant second banana to Jack Doyle, but some injuries and some unexpected red zone usage later and Ebron was ending his first season as a Colt with 66 catches for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns. The receptions and yards weren't too much better than his best Lions year, but the touchdown numbers were eye-opening, fueled by Ebron scoring on all 10 of his red zone receptions.

That's all led to a major rise in stock for Ebron. But seeing a guy spike in value after having the best season of his career in his fifth year in the league isn't just something we can look at and say "well, Ebron's arrived" and then pencil him into the top tier of tight ends. No, we've got to prod at it, poke holes in his season, figure out if Ebron's increase in production is sustainable.

Let's start with the basics. He had 13 touchdowns. Since 2004, there have been seven seasons that featured a tight end catching at least 13 touchdowns. Here's a chart showing how many they had the year before and after their 13 touchdown campaign:

Player Before The Year After
Antonio Gates - 2004 2 13 10
Vernon Davis - 2009 2 13 7
Rob Gronkowski - 2011 10 17 11
Vernon Davis - 2013 5 13 2
Jimmy Graham - 2013 9 16 10
Tyler Eifert - 2015 2* 13 5**
Eric Ebron - 2018 4 13 ???

(* - Eifert played just one game in 2014, so this number is from 2013. ** - Eifert played just eight games in 2016)

So, all the players saw a drop in touchdowns the next year. Only 2009 Davis got back to 13 again. Ebron won't find the end zone as often in 2019 as he did in 2018, but only 2013 Davis followed up his 13 touchdowns with a season that was worse than the year before his 13-touchdown season.

Then there's the issue of other players in Indianapolis. Last year, Ebron had a 16.7 percent market share of the team's targets, second on the team to T.Y. Hilton. But a few things to note: Dontrelle Inman was the second most targeted wideout on the team. Jack Doyle missed 10 games. Hilton was banged up for a good portion of the year.

And then the Colts went out and added a really good number-two receiver, Devin Funchess, and added a rookie that a lot of people are hyping up, Parris Campbell. It's a little crazy to expect Ebron to have the kind of usage he did last year. Funchess is a big target in the red zone. Doyle is a great safety valve in the middle of the field. Hilton is Hilton, and Campbell is going to see a ton of slot usage. Andrew Luck throws the ball a lot, but there will be a lot of mouths to feed.

We're talking about dynasty leagues, though, so Ebron's future ability to succeed still matters here, especially with both him and Doyle hitting free agency after this season. He could end up as the Colts top guy or could end up as some other team's top guy. Or, he could end up in an even worse situation. Free agency is always a major risk for dynasty owners because situation is one of the most important things there is in terms of generating fantasy success.

Still, 13 touchdowns and the trust of Andrew Luck in the red zone? Ebron's not some scrub.


The Case for Irv Smith Jr.

Well, for starters, Smith is a rookie, which means that if he has a successful NFL career, he'll outlast Ebron in the league since Ebron is entering his sixth season. Age is a major thing to take into account while doing a dynasty startup draft.

But because Smith's NFL track record doesn't exist and tight end can be one of the most difficult positions to predict, we have to make some guesses with Smith based on his college numbers and tape.

Let's start with the numbers. Last year, he had 44 receptions for 710 yards and seven touchdowns in what was really his only productive college season. His college dominator rating of 14 percent ranks in just the 35th percentile among tight ends. That's low, and Smith having just one year of being Alabama's main tight end makes it harder to predict his success than it makes someone like Noah Fant, who we have more tape on.

But Smith's tape from last year has a lot of promise, and you can see why he was so highly regarded leading up to the draft:

On this play, Smith lines up in the slot. He very easily beats the linebacker who's on him off the line, which then leads the LSU safety to come over to try to provide another body to stop Smith. But Smith's speed -- he's in the 85th percentile among tight ends in the 40-yard dash -- helps ensure he has the step he needs to stay in front of the defenders, which is good since he gets hit hard the moment he gets that ball. Put a slower tight end on the field there, and the placement of that ball plus the speed of the defense isn't letting the touchdown happen.

On this play -- which, yes, is from a game against Citadel, a team who is obviously not that good -- we see Smith getting open in the middle of the field and then weaving his way down the field for the score. He won't do this exact thing in the NFL, but his speed allows him to turn catches over the middle into decent gains, which will increase his usefulness.

The biggest issue for Smith right now is that the Vikings have a pretty good tight end already in veteran Kyle Rudolph, which makes it hard to see an immediate path to success. If this were an article over re-draft leagues, I'd stop right here and give the victory to Ebron and we'd be done with things.

But Rudolph turns 30 in November, played through various injuries all of last year, and only had one season with 100 or more targets. Despite talk of a contract extension, the Vikings have to be planning for Smith to take over at some point, and unlike the Colts, they don't have a huge swath of options. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen might be the best receiving duo in the NFL, but after that...the Vikings have Rudolph and now Smith and that's about it in terms of players who can actually be trusted. Like, I know rookie tight ends struggle, but Smith is definitely going to be more valuable immediately than Laquon Treadwell and Chad Beebe, right?


The Verdict

This is a close one, and it depends on what your dynasty strategy is. Ebron is the better own for the next two seasons, but I'd rather have Smith beyond that. There's something about him that seems special, and something about Ebron's uptick in usage that seems unsustainable, and the combination of that means that if I'm committed to building my dynasty team for the long haul -- even though winning now can be fun -- then I'm waiting a couple of rounds and grabbing Smith, even though his college production does worry me. I think he's more than a one-year wonder, but I don't know if Ebron is more than one.

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