It’s best sometimes to remove your head from the numerical quicksand that so slyly sucks you down that statistical rabbit hole, where so many fantasy football teams go to die.
I’ve become borderline obsessed with the concept of streaming tight ends in 2013, just as we base our team defenses entirely on matchup, except for when we happen upon an elite defense, like last year’s Chicago Bears.
Parsing the sea of maddeningly inconsistent tight end stats from 2012 showed that there were 47 tight ends who achieved top-12 status (known as TE1) in at least one week last year, while 25 tight ends were TE1s in for or more contests.
The analysis also made clear how easy it was to exploit defenses that gave up the most production to tight ends: The 10 most tight end-friendly defenses gave up Jimmy Graham’s average per-game fantasy production in 36 percent of their collective contests. Pro Football Focus writer Pat Thorman contributed to the growing case for streaming tight ends with a thorough breakdown of how tight ends performed against defenses that excelled and struggled against the position in 2012.
Read more about streaming tight ends…
Fantasy football’s considerable numbers-only crowd would vehemently disagree with me on this front, but I think there’s quite a bit of room for the old-fashioned eyeball test in how we value and understand fantasy assets. Simply watching games without a mountain of stats to confirm or deny what you think you’re seeing is by no means a surefire way to judge a player, but I think we should learn what to look for.
That’s what I do in the offseason: I read books that help me understand how certain offensive positions are used and intricate analyses of offenses from writers who understand the game far better than I do.
That’s why I asked Eric C. Stoner, an NFL draft analyst for Draft Breakdown and Rotoworld who serves as my knowledge fount for all things college football, what we should look for in defenses that are regularly gouged by tight ends. With the proliferation of the NFL’s All-22 game film service, we finally have a chance to understand what we’re seeing. First though, we need to know what to look for.
Stoner said NFL teams aren’t likely to move away from defensive schemes that match safeties and linebackers against tight ends. The rise of smaller, quicker tight ends – think Aaron Hernandez – could mean “teams featuring a combination of inexperience and a lack of athleticism in the middle of the field make themselves very susceptible to tight end gashings,” Stoner said.
This jibes with last season’s results: The Washington Redskins, the worst defense against fantasy tight ends, have an exceptionally slow group of linebackers and safeties who didn’t scare anyone. Even hulking tight ends like Martellus Bennett proved troublesome for the Skins’ linebackers and safeties to cover. The Broncos and Titans also featured linebackers and safeties who weren’t know as fleet footed, and they too were among the most generous defenses against tight ends.
“A big part of the problem is that defenses haven’t really figured out how to treat these tight ends,” Stoner said of the new breed. “Are they traditional in-line/edge players who can get up the seam? That type seems to slowly be dying out in favor of over-sized receivers who can detach from the formation and split out wide. So a lot of the Xs and Os battle comes from designating whether you’re treating the tight end as a base formation player or as an extra receiver and matching with the proper personnel.”
Fantasy owners should be wary of defenses willing to substitute varying coverage packages to adjust to tight ends that are used more like slot receivers rather than traditional tight ends. In other words: beware the defense that makes critical changes in coverage of tight ends who would otherwise prove matchup problems.
Stoner pointed to last year’s Baltimore Ravens’ defense – which allowed a league-low 5.1 fantasy points per games to tight ends – as a unit that made effective adjustments against quality tight ends.
The Ravens made a move in the AFC Championship Game to shut down Hernandez after he had some success in the first half.
“The Ravens responded in the second half by removing Ed Reed from deep coverage responsibility and just having him shadow Hernandez like a cornerback would a receiver, and it was a very effective strategy,” Stoner said.
Stoner, mentioned the New York Giants’ “three-safety ‘big nickel’ set, with that third safety giving them a ton of flexibility match offensive personnel patterns without having to substitute,” and the Houston Texans’ dime defense, which used former safety Glover Quinn one-on-one with tight ends – a tough task for many tight ends — as defenses that probably won’t be great tight end matchups anytime soon.
The 2012 New York Jets, Stoner said, were a good example of a team with linebackers and safeties who lacked speed and made for easy targets. The Jets deployed seven defensive backs much of the time in its games against the New England Patriots last season, pulling out all the stops to slow down Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez.
“New England responded by gashing the Jets on the ground, which is the sort of frustrating thing that tends happens in fantasy football when you think you have a good matchup,” Stoner said.
And that, I think, is where the pure eyeball test can steer you wrong in fantasy football. While recognizing exploitable defensive schemes can be a major advantage over your teammates, studying three-and-four-week trends against tight ends might tell you more in determining which player to use from week to week.
Zone-heavy defenses should be bulls eyes for fantasy owners, Stoner said.
“Most tight ends are going to prefer going up against zone defenses, because it generally means one of two things: a free release at the line of scrimmage and/or natural space between defenders over the middle,” he said. “Really, the only chance you have against today’s tight ends are a defender that’s both strong enough to press and re-route these beats at the line of scrimmage, and the hip fluidity and speed to run with them down the seam.”