The tight end position in fantasy football has been quite frustrating in recent years. The prolific performers at the position became so few and far between that drafters in most league formats largely ignored the position after the top three or four talents were taken.
Essentially, you had your studs, and behind them was a cadre of worthless filler and imitation sauce photobombing the overall picture.
As a response, tight end premium leagues were created to enhance the value of receptions for tight ends, thus increasing the value of the position somewhat. Even then, this increase in value was done artificially simply to augment the tight end pool; it did not actually reflect an increase in performance on the field. I know these leagues are popular in the industry. I mean no disrespect to anyone who loves playing in this format, but it’s really just cheap inflation of value where there is none just to add relevancy to players who don’t deserve any. (Side note: I recommend forcing an extra TE slot into starting lineups if the goal is to add value to the position, but I digress.)
Fortunately, in recent seasons the position has seen an influx of talent, and more and more teams have utilized 12 personnel, allowing for more tight end production across the league. If nothing else, the position is no longer quite the veritable wasteland it had been. In fact, there seem to be more emerging studs at the position than ever before, so much so that it may become one of the deeper positions in fantasy before long.
That being said, tight end is still a very difficult position to master at the pro level. Players must become proficient with far more diverse and expansive blocking schemes and responsibilities as well as more advanced route concepts than they experienced in college. It’s not uncommon for a tight end to take multiple years to develop into a competent pro, and therefore, produce anything of value to a fantasy team.
For this reason, identifying the qualities and traits that often portend success at the position has never been more important. It should be noted that offensive scheme and coaching tendencies can be paramount when predicting success.
Certain coaches have a history of productive tight end usage, while others don’t utilize the position in the passing game nearly as much. Michael Fabiano of NFL.com put together a nice overview of coaching tendencies throughout the NFL last year, and research like this can be helpful when looking for an opportunity for a tight end to breakout.
However, the league continues to receive an influx of younger coaches with emerging and evolving tendencies. Additionally, older coaches and coordinators have learned that it’s smarter to adapt their schemes to their personnel and evolve as well. One can argue that “adapt or die” is an apt description for an NFL coach in an ever-increasing era of owner impatience and the yearly parade on the “hot seat.”
Therefore, it’s crucial to evaluate tight ends through a more objective lens that isolates their individual traits and athletic abilities, especially giving the learning curve that the position involves.
Fortunately, we live in an age of advanced analytics that can provide some filters to weed out prospects and young NFL talent with profiles who are more likely to bust once given opportunity, while simultaneously identifying those who are more likely to thrive at the next level. It goes without saying that data, as an instrument, should go hand-in-hand with film-study to build a more complete picture of a player that the numbers may not reveal.
With that in mind, there are a series of analytical data points, in addition to a little film study from one of the league’s best tight ends, that one should consider when trying to identify which tight ends have the qualities necessary to breakout.
Let’s start with the most obvious and basic analysis: opportunity and production.
Opportunity and Production
If we exclude the top, elite tier of tight ends (e.g. George Kittle, Travis Kittle, Mark Andrews) and the list of players at the position who have technically already broken out (e.g. Evan Engram, Darren Waller, Austin Hooper, etc), we can see some rather interesting usage trends in the sortable table below.
If you sort the table above by targets per game, we see Dallas Goedert leads the pack of potential breakout tight ends with 5.8 targets per game. When you consider he split time on the field with Zach Ertz, that stat becomes even more remarkable. The Eagles figure to use a lot of 12 personnel again this year (they led the league in that category last year), and Goedart should have an integral role in the offense.
The Rams are another team that transitioned more to 12 personnel last year, upping the usage from 11% to 30% during the second half last season. Now left for dead by most fantasy drafters, Gerald Everett would seem to be a prime late-round dart throw as a player with the athletic profile you want at the position (more on that later) and the scheme-based opportunity to boom.
Mike Gesicki could see more time in the slot under Chan Gailey, and his target share is a big part of why many are predicting a breakout season. However, whether or not Gesicki plays the “big slot role” all season or not could be a dividing factor in his chances to break out when you consider tight ends have historically performed poorly in Gailey’s offenses. As I mentioned earlier, this is where you have to balance prior coaching tendencies with evolving scheme adaptations and hedge your bet.
Last year’s rookies, TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant, round out the crop of candidates who saw four or more targets per game. Hockenson, in particular, is especially attractive since his early-season injury and lack of production upon his return makes him a steal in drafts. Noah Fant will face increased competition for targets after the Broncos added Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler in the draft, but that does not mean Fant will disappear in the offense. As Week 1 revealed, both Hockenson and Fant look poised for big roles in their respective offenses. With these players, their film is also just as valuable as the stats.
Here is George Kittle himself breaking down film on both Hockenson and Fant:
Great mini segment from @gmfb where George Kittle raved about his former tight end teammates, TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant.
He broke down film of each prospect, referenced the exact moment he knew they'd be future stars, and why #Hawkeyes tight ends transition quickly to the pros: https://t.co/8Qo89ytxIn
— Joe Paeno (@Paeno) April 6, 2019
Now let’s look at the quality of production from each of those breakout candidates.
Let it be known that not all production is created equal. As impressive as it may be to hear that a tight end is receiving four-plus targets per game and catching all of them each week, it’s far less impressive if the player barely ever crosses the 30-yard threshold. Dink and dunk safety valve targets and hot read options do not a breakout make. Conversely, if a tight end is only receiving two or three targets per game, but each one of those is 15+ yards downfield, the opportunity for massive output grows exponentially. Therefore, we must look at the quality of the production each tight end receives and not just the amount of opportunity given to produce.
As you can see from the sortable table above, Jonnu Smith immediately becomes an intriguing name as he leads the pack with 9.8 yards per target. Smith is a weapon with the ball in his hands, and he doesn’t need to be peppered with targets to produce. The same could be said of Gerald Everett, Blake Jarwin, and Dawson Knox, who are near the top of this list in average depth of target. Sadly, Jarwin was lost for the year already, and Everett has depth chart concerns to contend with still.
The Bills would like Josh Allen to get better at downfield passing, a big part of why they traded for Stefon Diggs. Dawson Knox offers another downfield threat and a significantly bigger one than Diggs. Tyler Higbee may generate more looks closer to the line of scrimmage, but Everett figures to be the more dynamic weapon of the two in Los Angeles if the team will utilize him more. Like the others I’ve just mentioned, Blake Jarwin was always going to struggle to garner many targets, but he may not need many to produce a little next season with a high average depth of target.
Perhaps the most important statistic above is yards per route run. Scott Barrett over at PFF.com wrote a great article a few years ago explaining the value of metrics that matter like yards per route run. In short, yards per route run divides a player’s receiving yards by the number of routes run on passing plays. Essentially, it attempts to quantify what a pass-catcher can do when given an opportunity.
Once again, Jonnu Smith shines with 2.14 yards per route run. Dan Arnold may join Blake Jarwin as a player capable of carving out a minor but valuable role despite heavy competition for targets in an elite offense. This metric gives Chris Herndon truthers a ray of hope that he can deliver on the promise of his 2018 rookie year. But perhaps the biggest winner with yards per route run is Hayden Hurst.
"Hurst still was impressive from an efficiency standpoint, when given the chance. He ranked 10th among qualified tight ends in yards per route run — tied with Zach Ertz and ahead of Evan Engram, Hunter Henry, and Austin Hooper."https://t.co/AMIeT2WzbF
TOP 10 whn gvn OPPORTUNITY
— Rosterbatorium (@rosterbatorium) May 23, 2020
It must be stated that a big part of what a tight end can do with opportunity is often what he can do after the catch. Rather than use YAC, which can be misleading based on volume, much can be learned from a tight end’s ability to break tackles instead.
We know how good the Titans are at breaking tackles. Here’s a list of Receptions per Broken Tackle (TE & WR). Top 6 in the NFL:
4.1 | G Everett
5.4 | Corey Davis
5.8 | Jonnu Smith
6.0 | J Akins
6.0 | C Sutton
6.5 | AJ Brown
Btw, having 3 in the Top 6 is RIDICULOUS 💪
— League Winners (@league_winner) July 14, 2020
Put another feather in the caps of both Jonnu Smith and Gerald Everett. Jordan Akins suddenly becomes a fascinating case study as well under this context. It’s worth noting that Akins managed 39 yards on his two targets against Kansas City in Week 1, including a 19-yard touchdown. He will have to compete with veteran Darren Fells (only 34 receptions, but seven TDs in 2019) and former 3rd rounder Kahale Warring, who fits the mold you want in a tight end but hasn’t been able to stay healthy or make it onto the field.
And that brings us to the mold itself.
There are two things that may matter most when looking for a breakout tight end: draft capital and speed score. Consider this Tweet after George Kittle’s rookie season.
Since 2000, #49ers George Kittle had the 10th-best rookie season by a TE in terms of receiving yards (515). Only one player in the top 15 was drafted in a lower spot (Tim Wright, UDFA).
All signs suggest Kittle was a home-run 5th-round pick and 2018 breakout candidate.
— Joe Dolan (@FG_Dolan) July 17, 2018
Draft capital matters for the tight end position. Teams are willing to invest in difference makers at the position since it provides a competitive advantage. As the old adage goes, a good tight end is a quarterback’s best friend.
However, for a tight end to offer a competitive advantage, he usually has to possess a combination of athleticism, size, speed, and sound technique to beat linebackers and safeties in coverage. It’s also worth noting that tight ends that operate purely outside as “move” tight ends (think Travis Kelce) are used almost exclusively as pass catchers who run routes on passing plays. Contrast that with “in-line” tight ends that are primarily blockers in the run game first. There’s also the rare tight end like George Kittle who excels at both, which makes him arguably the best in the league at his position.
Why does all this matter? We can combine a tight end’s draft capital with his athletic profile to identify the most likely candidates to break out. When you add a sticky stat like yards per route run, the process becomes even more sound.
|Player||Draft Capital||Speed Score||Burst Score||Yds/RtRun|
Scroll through the sortable table above, and you’ll see why draft capital matters. Other than Logan Thomas, it’s hard to get too excited about any of the tight ends drafted after Round 3. Blake Jarwin and Dan Arnold looked appealing from a yards per route run standpoint, but neither is likely to ever be featured in their respectively loaded offenses. The same can be said of Ian Thomas in Carolina operating as the fifth option at best in a new offense. Thomas’ poor yards per route run is another strike against the breakout many believe will happen with Ian Thomas this year.
Logan Thomas and Chris Herndon are the only Day 3 tight ends with little competition for targets. Herndon continues to be productive when healthy, but his upside will always be limited in an Adam Gase offense (as will every offensive skill position player). However, Logan Thomas might be the only viable pass-catcher Washington has outside of Terry McLaurin and possesses arguably the most important athletic trait a tight end can have – an elite speed score.
Speed score assigns a premium to 40-yard dash times run by tall, heavy tight ends. Essentially, more credence is given to bigger, heavier players who can run exceptionally fast for their size, even if that 40 time doesn’t compare to that of a speedy scatback or a defensive back who ran a 4.3. Logan Thomas boasts a similar speed score as Noah Fant. Don’t be surprised if Thomas finishes 2020 as a low-end TE1.
Look at the metrics that matter most. If a tight end boasts a strong athletic profile and draft capital, that’s a recipe for a breakout if the opportunity is there. If not, then the player must exceed with extreme efficiency.
Case in point: Tyler Higbee for the Los Angeles Rams. Higbee appeared destined for an “in-line” blocking role as a second tight end behind Gerald Everett, an athletic freak with 2nd Round draft capital and a 74% speed score. Compare that with Higbee (4th Round draft pick, 50th-percentile Speed Score), and Higbee’s breakout last year appears both unfathomable and unrepeatable, especially when you consider most of his statistical outbreak occurred while Everett was hurt or out of sync with the offense after a long layoff. Higbee was also a trade candidate heading into last season.
However, despite a pedestrian athletic profile, Higbee was insanely efficient when given the opportunity, and that opportunity arose from the team’s shift away from 11 personnel to more 12 personnel to compensate for the lackluster O-line play last season. With Everett on the shelf, Higbee became the featured pass-catcher in HC Sean McVay’s offense. His 2.50 yards per route run last season is higher than every single breakout candidate mentioned in this article – better than Hockenson, Hurst, Fant, Goedert… all of them.
The Rams saw a perfect scheme fit and chemistry with their franchise quarterback, and that was enough to lock up Higbee with a new deal. Everett, despite his elite athletic traits, may not be a perfect scheme fit due to his struggles blocking within the scheme, nor might he share the same chemistry with QB Jared Goff, making Everett, not Higbee, the most likely of the two to eventually get traded.
Unfortunately, we can’t always forecast the circumstances that led to Higbee’s blazing breakout in 2019, but we can predict future tight end breakouts with relative success using the metrics discussed in this article. If your breakout candidate seems to be having trouble taking off, see what the team’s beat writers report about his struggles. Perhaps the player is struggling to adapt to a scheme or pick up the playbook. Conversely, if a player with a less than desirable athletic profile has a surprisingly big game, don’t immediately write it off as a fluke. Again, do the research to see if the team has shifted its base personnel to a more tight end friendly scheme, and check to see if the quarterback has been targeting him relentlessly during practice.
Your process as a fantasy player on the unit for the next breakout tight end should probably revolve around opportunity, production, quality of production, efficiency (yards per route run), and athletic profile. Those signals serve as the launchpad for the return of the tight end in 2020.
(Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire)