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Why You Should Wait on Tight End This Year


I like to stay flexible in my fantasy football draft preparations. I have a Plan A, of course, but there are always contingencies for when things inevitably take an unexpected turn on draft day. The one element of my planning process that I tend to stick to no matter what, however, is my preference to wait on the tight end position.

With this in mind, I can't decide if I'm the right or wrong person to write this article. On one hand, I'm admittedly biased in favor of my own personal feelings toward the position's value in fantasy football. On the other, adhering to this principle has given me plenty of experience in how to deal with the ups and downs inherent in passing on one of the top options, and it has worked for me more often than not. In the passages below, I will explain my case for waiting on a tight end in 2019 (or any year, really). I'll incorporate some numbers from the 2018 NFL season, ADP information from 2018 drafts, early ADP results from 2019 drafts, and some general concepts regarding draft strategy at large as it relates to positional value.

Before we begin, let's get something straight. If you're targeting one of the Big Three (Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Zach Ertz), do not necessarily allow me to sway you from that position. I am by no means saying it's a bad idea to draft one of them at their respective ADP, and I would not criticize or question any fantasy owner for doing so on draft day. Especially considering the unpredictability of the position as a whole on a weekly basis, you're doing yourself a favor by taking the safe option and greatly reducing your need to worry about what you're going to get. I'm simply offering an alternative way of looking at things. Let's get to it!  Note: All ADP information courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator

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Return on Investment

I'm no business mastermind, but one principle we can all agree is important when it comes to drafting in fantasy sports is Return on Investment. If you're new to fantasy football, here's an example of what I mean by this. Let's say we drafted Adam Thielen at his fourth-round, WR15 ADP last season. Thielen went on to finish as WR7 in ESPN standard scoring, so we got a solid return on investment (ROI) with that pick. On the flip side, let's say we drafted Keenan Allen at his second-round, WR7 ADP last season. Allen finished the season as WR14, so our ROI with that pick was negative.

I'm of the mind, however, that there is a relatively wide margin for error as it pertains to wide receivers (and running backs) in the early rounds. Allen may not have returned the second-round value we drafted him for, but he still ended the season as a high-end WR2, and we could typically count on him to produce in our lineups on a weekly basis. The sheer volume of running backs and wide receivers taken in the early rounds of a fantasy draft means we don't need every single one of our players to perform to the exact ADP at which we took them (are you really going to be that upset, or even surprised, if the preseason WR5 finishes the season as WR10?). We just need them to play within their ADP range, and to be usable on a weekly basis.

Now let's look at ROI as it pertains to tight ends. Rob Gronkowski was last year's preseason TE1, and was drafted as such with a late second-round ADP. He finished the season as TE11, more than 100 points behind 2018 leader Travis Kelce. Technically, Gronkowski's fantasy output was start-worthy on a weekly basis in a 12-team league. But we didn't draft him to be start-worthy, we drafted him to be dominant. Our ROI for Gronkowski in 2018 is considerably more negative than our ROI with the Allen pick at wide receiver in the same round.

Moreover, here's where I believe margin for error factors in more heavily for tight ends. By drafting Gronkowski in the second round last year, we were potentially passing on Mike Evans or Tyreek Hill. Even if we drafted Kelce (who obviously panned out) at his late third-round ADP in 2018, we were potentially bypassing Thielen or Amari Cooper. But if we skip on down the draft board to last year's preseason TE7, Trey Burton (late sixth-round ADP), our available options at other positions could have included players like Will Fuller or Peyton Barber. I, for one, would much rather bet against Fuller than Evans or Thielen.

Even if we can chalk up the Gronkowski second-round misfire to injuries, look at it this way: If an early-round tight end gets hurt, we have to replace him with an undrafted player or a guy we threw a dart at in the very last rounds. If an early-round back or receiver gets hurt, we're replacing him with one of potentially several other early-round picks at his position.

Gronkowski's 2018 downfall may be an extreme example, and his health definitely played a role, but I think it illustrates the point: Because of the ADP gap between the top tight ends and the middle and lower tiers, we need an early-round tight end to significantly outperform the rest of his position in order for our ROI to be in the green. There is not a large ADP gap between the first running back or receiver off the board and the 10th, so we can live with it if our players at these positions do not provide or exceed their draft-day value (as long as they're somewhere within range). But there is a very large ADP gap between the first tight end drafted and the 10th. If our early-round tight end finishes the season even middle-of-the-pack, there is a high likelihood that we missed out on much better value at other positions with that pick.

 

Playing it Safe

The above passage focuses more on a general concept, but now we're going to further explore some 2018 numbers. Last season, Kelce paced the tight end position with 191.6 fantasy points in ESPN standard scoring. George Kittle came in second with 170.7, and Zach Ertz rounded out the top three with 164.3. Eric Ebron was fourth, and much closer to third than he probably should have been thanks to a completely unsustainable 13 touchdowns. Jared Cook was the fifth and final tight end to score more than 100 fantasy points, again thanks to a career year he had never come close to in his previous seasons. Only the top three had point totals that averaged out to a double-digit output on a 16-game basis. The sixth-ranked tight end was Trey Burton with 93.1 fantasy points, nearly 100 fewer than Kelce.

Tyreek Hill led all wide receivers in fantasy points in 2018 with 247, leaps and bounds ahead of second-place Antonio Brown with 219.7. The rest of the top 10, from Brown all the way to Robert Woods, were all within 40.1 points of each other. To find the first player who scored 100 fewer points than Hill (even in a year when he was that far ahead of the pack), we have to go all the way down to WR17, Tyler Boyd. The top 15 at the position had point totals that averaged out to double-digit outputs on a 16-game basis.

As for running backs, Todd Gurley was number-one at the position with 313.1 points last year. There was a significant gap between Gurley and 10th-place David Johnson at 196.6 points, but all of the running backs in the top 20 finished with double-digit point averages on a 16-game basis.

I insisted on providing these numbers because the most obvious argument to be made is: With that much of a gap between the first and sixth tight end, doesn't it make sense to give yourself an advantage at that position when there are so many more valuable receivers and running backs? The answer, in a word, is yes. In several words, however, the answer is yes, as long as the tight end you draft actually does what you're asking him to. We already touched on how easily things can go awry with our Gronkowski example above.

I personally give myself more leeway with running backs and wide receivers in the early rounds. Even if I'm the first person to draft a player at a certain position (say, sixth overall pick, I get the first wideout off the board), I'm not asking that player to finish number-one overall. I simply like that player the best of the available options and I'm expecting him to finish the season somewhere close to his ADP. I don't believe this line of thinking can be applied to tight ends because of the sheer disparity that stands to exist in end-of-season point totals from one tier to the next.

In the early rounds, I'd rather bet on a wide receiver or running back to finish inside the top 10, 15, or 20 at his position than bet on a tight end to finish first overall.

 

So When Do I Draft a Tight End?

I've been discussing the early rounds for most of this writing, but now I guess it's time to admit that my avoidance of tight ends goes far beyond my first few picks. Not only am I uncomfortable spending a third or fourth-round pick on the position, but I typically don't even like to grab a tight end in the middle rounds, either. It's a fast-and-loose draft strategy, but I generally start to take stock of the tight end market right around the time when I begin to lose interest in the rest of the available players in a particular ADP range.

Ultimately, my decision boils down to a question I alluded to above: Am I comfortable betting against the players available at other positions in favor of drafting a tight end? If you take nothing else from this article, I'd encourage you to try this line of thinking out in some of your mock drafts. Every time you arrive at a TE-related crossroads in your draft, simply ask yourself if you believe more strongly in the tight end(s) available than you believe in the players remaining at other positions. You might find that your personal answer to this question allows you to know when you've made the right decision as it pertains to your own philosophy.

If you ask yourself this question in the early rounds, ask it from the following perspective: Is this tight end more likely to be dominant than these receivers or running backs are to be good? If you ask it in the middle or later rounds, use this viewpoint: Is this tight end more likely to be start-worthy on a regular basis than these receivers or running backs are to break out? In other words, you'd be comparing early tight ends' ceilings to other players' floors. Later on in the draft, simply flip the comparison around. I'm confident that if you employ this thought process in mock drafts--whether the end result is waiting on tight end or not--you'll come away with more faith in whatever route you choose.

 

So I Waited on Tight End... Now What?

Fast-forward to Week 1. Our eighth-round tight end gave us next to nothing in the form of production, and we don't know if we can tolerate that lack of effort in our otherwise championship-caliber lineup. Fair enough. There are three roads we can take from here, but above all else, we must not panic.

We should always scour the waiver wire, but I'd advise taking tight end production with a grain of salt. A tight end going off in one week is not necessarily indicative of future success, especially if his fantasy points are the result of touchdowns. This is true in reverse as well: Just because the tight end we drafted posts a dud in Week 1 does not mean he won't have better days ahead. So maybe we stay patient for a few weeks (as long as our team can sustain it), and then make a waiver-wire decision based on a larger body of work than just one game. Personally, the stat I always focus on during these in-season evaluations is targets. I don't necessarily care if a tight end is putting out tangible results, but if he's consistently seeing a high volume of balls thrown his way, I view it as a good indication of what we can reasonably expect from him going forward if he's able to put it all together.

Once we've pulled the trigger on a free agent, we will arrive at a new decision. If the tight end we acquired proves to be serviceable on a weekly basis, we can simply roll with him for most of the season. If not, we may find ourselves streaming the position from week to week, hunting favorable matchups and exploiting them. This can work out in our favor, but it's also essentially a game of informed roulette. Even the most enticing tight end matchups don't automatically translate into fantasy production.

And so, the third option at our disposal is to simply ride out the storm. Whether it's with the tight end we drafted or a guy we grabbed off the waiver wire in the early weeks, it can be just as beneficial to stick with him as it is to stream. The end-of-season point difference between 2018's TE6 and TE15 was 1.2 points per game. Maybe I'm in the minority, but 1.2 points per game aren't worth getting worked up over. And it certainly isn't worth sacrificing our free agency auction budget over multiple times a year. We'll have a pretty good idea what the tight end landscape looks like after the first few weeks, so as long as we have a guy who's consistently in that middle-of-the-pack, start-worthy range, we aren't any worse off than most of our league mates.

The upside of the frustration inherent in waiting on tight end is that we have likely loaded up our roster with an abundance of running backs and receivers, greatly increasing our odds of finding value at positions more consistently reliable than tight end anyway. And if we have a surplus of these players, we can always trade one of our extra assets for a tight end if we want.

 

Conclusion

In closing, I'd like to say that this is not an exact science. Nothing about fantasy football is, for that matter. Any advice or analysis you read throughout the preseason will require at least some luck in order to pan out, whether the writer leads you to believe that or not. My goal here is to simply provide you with some new ideas and potentially different ways of looking at things. Even if you don't buy into all of the philosophy I've laid out here, I hope that you've at least come away with some food for thought as you decide how you want to approach the tight end position in 2019.

On that note, draft season is about to ramp up in a hurry. Make sure to visit RotoBaller early and often this training camp season for more analysis, advice, research, and news (from hundreds of different perspectives) so you can go into your draft with a plan.

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